The Holy Land Part 1 – Tel Aviv to the Sea of Galilee

The Holy Land

Part One: Tel Aviv to the Sea of Galilee, Israel


February 20-21, 2010

Dateline: Tel Aviv

Latitude at Tel Aviv, 32.6 Degrees North, Longitude 34.47 Degrees East


We have waited several years to take a trip to the Holy Land, thinking that any day now, or for that matter, any decade now, things would calm down and it would be safer to travel there. While not exactly peaceful, the situation has progressed from suicide bombings, shooting and missile firing to occasional name-calling, rock throwing and vociferous demonstrating, although we are given to understand that this could deteriorate at the drop of a yarmulke (the Yiddish word for the skull caps worn by Jewish men, although the Hebrew word is kippah).   Anyway, we decided to take a leap of faith (no pun intended) and book a trip while we are still young enough to dodge any rocks coming our way. And really there was hardly any bombing and only sporadic gunfire (just kidding about this part – no injuries or fatalities while we were there unless you count maybe that Hamas guy in Dubai the authorities think the Mossad took out).  To answer the question, “Is it safe to visit?”, the answer is yes, safer than any major American city you can name and lots of minor ones. Injury or harm to tourists from violence is really unheard of nowadays. It is much more likely that, if anything, you might be inconvenienced or not able to visit certain places.

On February 20, we set out with our friends Stu and Sharon to explore the holiest (and the most hotly contested) places in the world of the three major religions: Christianity, Islam and Judaism. We had an overnight flight of 10.5 hours  to Tel Aviv after a short (too short as it turned out) connection at  JFK in New York. We made the flight to Tel Aviv, but our luggage did not. Fortunately we had a few extra things in our back packs to get by until the next day’s Delta flight arrived.

Tel Aviv Promenade

Tel Aviv Promenade

By 5:00 p.m. we were at the Metropolitan Hotel, a modest and unassuming sort of low-rise, just a block off the beach on the Mediterranean Sea.  We were thinking modest and unassuming are really the way to go, just in case any terrorist types decide to make a political statement by attacking a snooty high-rise sort of place. We walked the block over to the Beach Walk Promenade to stroll around a bit and to have a cocktail before dinner.  With the mosaic walkways, we found it a little reminiscent of Rio de Janeiro, but without all that bare flesh, which is a good thing since the temperatures were only in the low 60’s and falling. We had some excellent calamari at a beachfront restaurant and bar, before eating a most unremarkable buffet style meal at the hotel. We would come to actually recoil from the hotel buffets in the days to come, but more on that later.

Israel is a very young country (declared as such in 1948) in a very old land. Tel Aviv is a very young city as far as the Middle East goes, but looks a little worn in places – sort of like Miami before South Beach, or Atlantic City before Donald Trump.  In places it had sort of  a bombed-out  look – missing plaster, exposed ironwork, hanging electrical wires. We later learned that one spot in particular which we took to be a nightclub in a former life, was the site of a suicide bombing several years ago in which 14 people were killed. It is back in business, but looks pretty shabby. And speaking of night life, the big dance craze here currently is salsa. The “hora” as performed to the tune of “Hava Nagila” is more or less relegated to the same status as “The Chicken Dance” here in the US (i.e. reserved for wedding receptions and anniversary parties).

Beach at Tel Aviv

Beach at Tel Aviv

The city was established in 1909 in the sand dunes just north of the ancient Arab port of Jaffa. The name Tel Aviv means Hill of Spring, but it does not mean a hill formed the usual way by Mother Earth.  Tels in Israel are the result of one set of buildings built on the foundations of previous ones, which over the centuries creates a hill. We didn’t see many sights since it was getting dark rapidly, but we did happen to stroll by the US Embassy, a rather squat, squared off fortress sort of building, which was very well fortified  with barbed wire, barricades, armed soldiers and admonishments that photos should not be taken.  We hoped we would not need any embassy services during our stay since getting inside looked to be a daunting task indeed. Much of the downtown architecture of Tel Aviv is Bauhaus (international Modernist style) with asymmetrical rounded facades, ribbon like windows, curves and ledges – not at all typical of my idea of the Middle East.

Politics are quite a lively affair here –picture the recent health care debate with all the participants on speed. Benjamin Netanyahu is the current prime minister, but with 24 political parties, all politicos have to rely on coalitions of multiple factions, so it makes it a pretty delicate dance to keep your power base here. The currency is the “shekel” which is roughly equivalent to 25 cents. Israel is not an inexpensive place to visit and thus we found ourselves making many trips to the Shekel Machines (ATM’s) over the course of our stay.

February 22, 2010

Dateline: Tel Aviv, Israel

We had a free day today to get acclimated to the time change so we are doing our own free lance tour (also known as the Ama-tour) with our professional tour starting tomorrow. We had a strange breakfast with lots of raw vegetables,  bread and cheese, but no meat  since this is a kosher hotel (no meat and dairy served at the same meal, and no pork anywhere, anytime which really starts to wear on you after a while if you like your bacon and pork chops as we gentiles living in the South tend to do). After breakfast, we took a local bus to the University of Tel Aviv campus to visit the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora (the Hebrew name is Beit Ha-Tefusoth, which probably explains why several students we stopped to ask for directions had no idea what we were talking about since we had no idea how to pronounce it). All I know is you can experience some serious spittle in your face if you are too close when the name is said correctly in Hebrew. En route we got to see another (more residential and better groomed side of the city). The museum is a huge multi-story affair whose purpose is to explain how the Jews became dispersed around the globe over the centuries and influenced world culture and world history.

The history of the Holy Land can take volumes and volumes to cover in detail, but for journal purposes, let me try to condense it to the bare essence – and this only as a framework for what we saw.  In the fewest words possible, what happened in the land that the State of Israel now occupies, plus or minus a few hundred square miles was this:

The earliest documented people were the Canaanites, with the walled city of Jericho being the oldest known, dating back to the 17th Century BC. You may recall that the walls came tumbling down when Joshua arrived on the scene and blew his horn. This was also the time,  give or take a few centuries, the era of Abraham when the Patriarchs ruled.  Then the Egyptians invaded in 1468 BC and ran things for a while and there was the mass exodus and ensuing bondage in Egypt, as described in the Bible.  Around 1200 BC the Philistines (later called Palestinians) arrived by sea and settled on land they termed Palestine. About the same time, the Hebrew Tribes came back, led by Moses, and established , over the next few centuries, a political entity known as Israel and they became known as Israelites. So thus the seeds for the three thousand year feud were sown, although the two factions did seem to get along okay from time to time.   From 1020 BC to 930 BC there were 3 monarchs of note: King Saul, (who battled the Philistines),  King David (slayer of Goliath) and King Solomon (builder of the first Jewish Temple). In 930 BC upon the death of Solomon, the Kingdom split into North (called Israel) and South (called Judea).

Even with the Kingdom divided, all was still cool until 722 BC when the Assyrians (from present day Syria) invaded Israel and expelled the Jews in the north in the area called Israel. Then in 587 BC the Babylonians (from current day Iraq) drove the Assyrians out, and pushed further south where they destroyed the First Temple, forcing the Jews in Judea into exile (a.k.a. slavery) back to Babylonia. Then in 538 BC the Persians (from current day Iran) conquered the Babylonians. So you can see how the seeds of discord were sown among these people as well. The leader of the Persians, Cyrus the Great, allowed the Jews to come back, and the Second Temple was built on the ruins of the first.  It is abundantly apparent how the troubles in the Middle East have been cooking for a long time, and today’s skirmishes are pretty small potatoes compared to the warfare of the olden days, at least as long as no one launches any nukes.

In 332 BC, Alexander the Great (originally from Macedonia, just north of Greece) appeared on the scene, and ran off the Persians. Of course when any one is called “the Great” it usually means that a great deal of killing and general mayhem has taken place, along with imposed religious and cultural changes. As a result of this particular conquest, there were Greek city-states set up in a group of 10 called the Decapolis. Once Alexander died, power was split up among 3 generals, and then the Second Temple was rededicated as a Temple of Zeus, which in turn, set off a Jewish rebellion in 164 BC and Jerusalem and the Temple were taken back.  A group called the Hasmoneans rose to power in Judea, but they had a running battle with a Hebrew religious sect called the Pharisees, which ultimately led to a major, really major,  blunder, I.E. both sides appealed to Rome to support their cause.

The Romans , of course, jumped right on it, and in 63 BC took over  Jerusalem and they installed their own governors, called procurators. Then in 37 BC, Herod (also “the Great”), took over as client King, meaning he was king of Judea, but was not absolute king – he ruled at the pleasure of the Caesar of Rome.  He died in 4 BC and his sons ruled briefly, (and poorly). His sons were also named Herod (maybe this is where George Foreman got the idea),  but they generally had other names associated with them  so we can tell who was whom.  The Herod ruling at the time Jesus died was Herod Antipas.

And if things weren’t complicated enough, one Herod’s wife left him to go marry his other brother, Herod, who dumped his first wife for her. Her name was Herodias and yep, she was a descendant  of Herod,  the Great too , so apparently there were not  all that many forks in the family tree.  John the Baptist, who had the misfortune to openly criticize Herod for such incestuous antics angered Herodias to the point that she demanded his head on a platter (delivered courtesy of arrangements made by her daughter Salome).   But I digress – back to the “brief” history. At this point the Romans were governing directly from Rome, the Jewish Revolt took place and was put down most harshly, the Second Temple was destroyed and the Jews were again exiled and scattered all over the globe in what is termed the Diaspora, peaking around 135 AD.

In 306 AD, Constantine, a converted Christian, became Emperor of Roman Empire and ruled until 337 AD. Then in 385 the Empire split into East and West and the Holy Land fell under, the East, the Byzantine rule. To fast forward things a bit, in 638 AD the Arabs conquered the Byzantines and introduced Islam and built the Dome of the Rock and the El- Aqsa mosque on the spot where the Holy Temples had been on Temple Mount – igniting outrage among the Jews in a controversy still as volatile today as it was then.  And then the Turks captured Jerusalem in 1071, and then the Crusaders took it in 1099  and then in 1187  Saladin, sultan of Syria and Egypt defeated the Crusaders and the Holy Land was ruled by former slave guards of his called the Mamelukes. Then in 1516, the Ottoman Turks defeated the Mamelukes and remained in power until the end of WWI when Turkey ended up on the losing side, and thus Great Britain took over the governing of the area in what was called the British Mandate.  Then in 1948, as thousands of displaced Jews flooded back to the “homeland”, the British left and the Jewish State was declared.

At the Museum of the Diaspora

At the Museum of the Diaspora

So with that not too brief, and far from thorough history, I will pick up the action of our Holy Land Tour.  After the Museum of the Diaspora, we took a bus back downtown to Rabin Square which is sort of the heart of Tel Aviv. It was here by City Hall that Yitzak Rabin was assassinated in 1995 while attending a peace rally of all things – apparently not everyone liked the idea of peace. The assassin who confessed was an Israeli college student who was opposed to Rabin’s peace talks with Egypt, but conspiracy theories abound as to who was really behind it. From there we walked to the Beach Walk Promenade for a pleasant seaside lunch and then on to the open air Carmel Market which offers everything from freshly baked bread, spices, fish and fresh produce to shoes, lingerie and tourist gew-gaws  in side-by- side stalls that line the narrow streets. In a way, it’s sort of like Walmart – you can get your bras and bagels all in one place. From the market we walked to the Intercontinental David Hotel  and had some sunset cocktails, still hoping our luggage was coming in on one of the many flights we saw making their approach. The hotel (5 stars plus we suspect) was really elegant and the cocktails really pricy, so we sauntered back to our own hotel (of considerably fewer stars),  for Round Two. We did get our luggage around 10:00 p.m. which was a good thing since we are to leave Tel Aviv tomorrow morning with our guide. We can’t really say we have properly “done” Tel Aviv, so much will have to be planned for a second visit.

February 23, 2010

Dateline: Caesaria and Haifa Israel

Today we met our guide, Eilon (pronounced Eh-lon with the accent on the first syllable) and departed Tel Aviv for our first stop on the tour, Jaffa, a neighbor just south of Tel Aviv.  Eilon regaled us with both tales of Israel and himself and his family to the point that it was hard to tell which was more colorful and entertaining. Eilon’s parents were both Holocaust Survivors from Salonika, Greece who came to Israel in 1946 by way of Auschwitz. And this wasn’t their first persecution – his ancestors were originally from Portugal and fled to Greece during the Inquisition. Eilon’s parents met after being freed by the Russians at a refugee camp in Austria. His father was on a ship that was turned away by the British at Haifa, but he jumped overboard and swam to shore where he was sheltered, given dry clothes and vouched for by the locals. Eilon’s mother came later once the British left. Eilon grew up on a kibbutz ( a communist style farm which is pronounced “key-boots” with the accent on “boots”) and was in fact named after the dairy farm, Kibbutz Eilon where he lived and worked until he was 14. At 14 he went to military school and from there into the Israeli Army where he became a colonel in a tank unit and then served in the Israeli Special Forces. While in the army, he became an arms dealer, specializing in captured tanks. After leaving the Army he had his own security consulting company, where he essentially trained body guards for whoever might need their bodies guarded all over the world. Now he has more or less settled down doing tours, running marathons and teaching martial arts. He absolutely looks the part – a dead ringer for Bruce Willis (the current day Bruce) with no hair to speak of  and that wiry, tough guy Navy Seal-Delta Force look.

We also learned much about Israel, e.g. the population is 7 million, 6 million of which are Jewish. The idea of Israel as an independent country was the brainchild of a wealthy Hungarian in 1898 who proposed that wealthy Jews to buy up land in Palestine, which they did with some success. It took another 50 years for the Israel to be declared an independent country (or a State) by David Ben Gurion in 1948. In this speech he said “Tonight we dance, tomorrow we fight” and fight they did with all their neighbors, who gradually and grudgingly gave up the land to which hundreds of thousands of displaced Jews began to emigrate. In 1948, 7% of the population was Jewish, but today 80% of the population is Jewish, and so it’s no big mystery why the Palestinians are pretty unhappy with the direction things are going in the country once known as Palestine.

Today the country is somewhat larger than in 1948, although it is still small – roughly 300 miles long and 60 miles across at the widest point. The current size dates from the 1967 Six Day War in which Israel took Gaza  and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, the Golan Heights from Syria and the West Bank of the Jordan river from Jordan. Israel did give the Sinai back and reportedly offered Gaza, but the Egyptians said no thanks, we don’t need the headache of all those impoverished Palestinians, or something to that effect. Israel is still hanging on to the Golan, although Syria still wants it back. Israel is keeping the West Bank, having made peace with Jordan, but they still have the Palestinians to contend with.

Hebrew is the official language of Israel, although prior to establishment of the Jewish State, it was used only for religious purposes. Yiddish is a combination of Hebrew and German that arose in Eastern Europe. In Jesus’ time the language was Aramaic, first introduced by the Assyrians and closely related to Hebrew. It is spoken today in isolated communities in current day Turkey. Arabic is also widely spoken in Israel, as is English. Eilon speaks Hebrew, Arabic, English, French and Greek fluently, plus a smattering of other languages.

Ancient city of Jaffa

Ancient city of Jaffa

We drove into Jaffa, (aka Joppa) an ancient trading seaport, famous for its oranges even today,  and parked inside the city walls for a short visit. The city was supposedly founded by Noah’s son (after the flood that is), Japheth and scientists concur that it is indeed ancient with relics dating back to the 20th Century BC. The Bible states that “Joppa” is the seaport from which Jonah departed on the journey in which his close encounter (extremely close) with the whale took place. Jaffa is built on a “tel”, which is currently undergoing laboriously painstaking excavation. We strolled through some of the ancient streets of the Artist’s Quarter, so called because the old Byzantine era warehouses have been turned into galleries, although many are closed due to the recession’s affecting tourism to such an extent. The main attraction here in Jaffa is a visit to the house of Simon the Tanner, where the Apostle Peter (aka St. Peter or Simon Peter ) occasionally stayed as documented in Acts 9:43. (Acts , the 5th book of the New Testament tells of the “acts” or history of the apostles as they go forth to spread the gospel)  It was here on the roof of Simon the Tanner’s house (rooftops were commonly patio-like things in those days) that Peter had a vision and heard the voice of  God telling him that no

Street Old Jaffa

Old Jaffa  Street near Simon the Tanner’s House

one is beyond redemption and he should spread the gospel to all people – gentiles as well as Jews. And he also told him that keeping kosher dietary laws is no longer necessary.  Peter is also said to have raised a woman named Tabitha from the dead, along with other miracles, which consequently convinced many villagers to believe in Christ as the Son of God. It wasn’t exactly Christianity as we know it because that was not established formally until 332 AD. However there were a great many followers of the disciples who spread the teachings of Jesus in the time prior to the establishment of Christianity, who are sometimes sort of facetiously referred to as Jews for Jesus, which more or less accurately describes them.

From Jaffa we drove north up  the Mediterranean coast on roads lined with large tracts of eucalyptus that have been planted to soak up excess  water in order for wetlands  to able to become farmland.  We stopped mid-morning at the ruins of Caesarea, (pronounced See-sare- ee-ah with the accent on “sare”) built by the Roman Emperor, Herod, (the Great, not the Herod Juniors) between 29 and 22 BC, upon the ruins of a Phoenician city. He created an entire city complex whose original purpose was to provide a deep water harbor, but it became much more than that with a hippodrome, amphitheater, stadium, temples and palaces. It was home to 12,000 people in Herod’s time, but later it grew to as many as 30,000. Even today it is considered an engineering marvel –with an aqueduct, sea walls and an elaborate de-siltation system to keep the harbor deep enough for ships to use.

 Amphitheater at Caesaria

Amphitheater at Caesaria

Pontius Pilate lived in Caesarea and journeyed to Jerusalem at Passover where he condemned Jesus to death in 33 AD.  St Paul was a frequent visitor here and on his last visit, he was arrested for spreading the gospel after the Crucifixion. He was imprisoned here for 2 years before being sent to Rome in chains. Problems in Caesarea started in 66 AD with rioting against the client king and Roman rule in general. Nero (then Caesar of Rome) sent Vespasian to Caesarea to quell what was called the Great Revolt. Four years later, Vespasian’s son, Titus, lay siege to the Holy Mount in Jerusalem for 4 months. Once it fell, he tore down the Second Temple, depriving Judaism of its most sacred site. A note on destroying temples, fortresses etc. – although they take years and years to build, they could be torn down in rather short order by removing the keystones of the various archways. Often the building blocks would then be taken for new structures.

Herod's Palace Pool at Caesaria

Herod’s Palace Pool at Caesaria

Caesarea continued to expand and prosper until around 614 AD when it began a slow decline. The next construction in the area came around a thousand years later when the Crusaders built a much more modest fortress here on top of a portion of the Roman ruins in their efforts to conquer the Holy Land. After centuries of neglect and with absolutely no eye toward future tourism, the Mamelukes destroyed the fortress and as much of the ruins as they had the time and energy for. Fortunately, the Romans really knew how to build stuff and they built so much of it, we were able to enjoy an impressive array of Herod’s legacy.

From Caesarea we drove north to the town of Megiddo through the Jezreel Valley, the most fertile in Israel. It looks much as it did in ancient times, except for modern roads. Because it is early spring the hillsides are covered with the bright yellow blossoms of wild mustard, growing since Biblical times along with purple thistle and bright red poppies.  It is the Megiddo area that is referenced in Book of Revelation in the Bible, (taken from Har Megiddo, with “har” meaning mountain, and later translated as Armageddon), where the final battle of the whole world between good and evil is supposed to take place as the world as we know it comes to an

end.  Many fierce battles have taken place in this valley over the centuries that may have seemed like the battle to end all battles,  but so far, the world still turns on its axis.  We were amazed that so much Biblical history has played out in the landscape before us. The lesser non-Armageddon battles included one in 1468 BC when the Egyptian pharaoh Thutmose III destroyed the Canaanite fortress here. Then there was the one when Solomon took the fortress back and rebuilt in, but later the Assyrians took it, and so on and so forth. Battles of both World Wars were fought in this same valley. The last battle here was  during the Six Day War in 1967.One reason the war only lasted Six days was that on Day One Israel destroyed  the entire Air Forces of Egypt and Syria. It is also through this valley that Israel deploys tanks to face off with Lebanon and Syria to the north.

The road we were traveling was the border with Jordan before the Six Day War in 1967. The area from this road to the Jordan River is now referred to as the West Bank and is heavily populated by Palestinians. The British had given this land to Jordan in the era of The British Mandate, so the argument could be made that historically the land was never really theirs , and so perhaps that is why Jordan doesn’t insist on having it back in order to have peace with their neighbor. The boundary decisions made by the British were at the root of the Zionist movement in the 1970’s, whose mission it was to take back land the British gave away, if not through war, then through “Settlement”, even if other people (the Palestinians) are already living on that land This controversy continues to make headlines as recently as today.

Jezreel Valley

Jezreel Valley

We went to the top of the tel which afforded wonderful views across the Jezreel Valley to Nazareth and Migdal (the home of Mary Magdalene), Mt Tabor (where the apostles Peter, James and John witnessed the transfiguration of Jesus, i.e. he was shown to them to be the Son of God as he said he was), Mt Gilboa where the injured King Saul fell on his sword rather than be captured by the Philistines, the Hill of Moreh (where Gideon is said to have camped, prior to leading the Israelites against the Midianites who were nomadic raiders) and Mt. Carmel where Elijah challenged 45 prophets of the pagan god Baal to a contest to see whose deity was truly God. Elijah won the challenge when God send down a bolt of fire to ignite his pile of wood. It turned out rather badly for the Baal prophets since Elijah either killed them personally or had them killed. Since there were 450 of them, it is likely he had some help, but the Bible isn’t very clear on this point.

Tel Megiddo Excavations

Tel Megiddo Excavations

From the top of the mesa-like hill which is Tel Megiddo, we could see the major excavations going down layer upon layer of at least 20 successive settlements. The tel has a huge slice out of the middle, made by generations of archaeologists digging toward the bottom layer which goes back as far as 3,000 BC when this was a fortified city – and they are still digging down.  Among the ruins here are those of one of Solomon’s temples and the palace of Ahab and the infamous Jezebel, whose main evil deeds included idol worship (that pesky Baal again) and plotting to do away with Elijah for killing her guys. She is said to have committed suicide here by throwing herself off the palace balcony as enemy troops approached. However, another translation has her being thrown off the balcony as God’s punishment where she was to be consumed by dogs upon landing. Her weakling husband was said to have been killed and  his blood licked by dogs. There is certainly no dearth of drama, nor blood and guts, in the Old Testament for sure.

We had the opportunity to walk down to and through a complex water system in the heart of the tel, carved out of rock during the time of the Israelite kings. It is connected to a spring outside the walls, which is today dried up, but it ran for centuries in ancient times and was concealed in the olden days. This way, the people inside the walls would not be exposed to their enemies in order to get water.  We rejoined Eilon to drive to our next stop in a Druze village for a late lunch. We learned that the Druze are a branch of Muslims expelled from Egypt centuries ago. They are very loyal to Israel (or whatever country they happen to live in) and have their own flag and their own religious practices, which are kept secret. They try to blend in where ever they live and keep a low profile. You cannot convert to the Druze religion – you have to be born into it.  If a person leaves the Druze community, they are shunned – sort of like the Amish in some respects.  There are only around 150 thousand Druze in Israel , concentrated around Mt. Carmel and the Golan Heights.  They believe in reincarnation and that God gives his message to each person, with no intermediaries required. The mainstream Muslims consider the Druze traitors to the religion for their loyalty to Israel. The Druze men typically wear handle-bar mustaches, elaborate droopy things – sort of like Yosemite Sam. Traditional dress for men is pleated pantaloons and a tarboosh which a felt fez-like cap. The women wear black dresses and simple white head coverings.

We went to a village up high on Mt. Carmel on the Haifa road called Daliat, with roadside stands selling olives and goat cheese along the way. The restaurant was called Abu Anter and was run by the Halabi family (which is a name as common a name as “Smith” in Druze communities). Our host, Mr, Halabi, had the bushy mustache, but no pantaloons or tarboosh. We had delicious pita bread  right out of the oven, and all sorts of things to spread on it like hummus,(made from chick peas), tahini  (made from sesame seeds)and baba ganoush (made with egg plant) and a mixed grill with lamb and chicken that had been cooked on an outdoor home-made grill.  Gary determined that the grill was made from salvaged refrigerator parts, so we were hoping that they had done enough cooking on it for past customers so we didn’t get any leftover Freon or whatever on our kebabs. As a side note, when you have a kebab here, it is not on a skewer, but rather ground up and made into patties like sausage, but of course there is no pork involved. They don’t seem to use the phrase “shish kebab”   to describe things on skewers.

We left Daliat and wound our way down the mountains to the seaside city of Haifa which we found to be much like San Francisco in terrain, but with more of the L.A. weather. We checked into a hotel called the Dan Panorama, which compared to the Hotel Metropolitan in Tel Aviv, had a couple of more stars  along with a lot more marble and crystal and there were sweeping views of the harbor below –  in fact we termed it Haifa-lutin compared to the Metropolitan in Tel Aviv.  We had our evening cocktails watching the sun set over the Mediterranean and another one of those hotel buffets that we really did not like so very much, but at least they sustained life.


February 24, 2010

Dateline Haifa, Israel

Haifa originally had a large contingent of German settlers who became quickly persona non grata in the post WWII mass immigration by Jews from all over Europe in 1946.This is where Eilon’s father swam ashore from one of the refugee boats. With the Germans leaving so abruptly, there were many housing opportunities for the newly arrived.  The name “Haifa” means “Pretty City” in Hebrew and we found that the name fits. Haifa is noted for its protected harbor, which was the main seaport of the area for centuries, although now Ashdod is the major commercial port.  Only 18 miles from the Lebanese border, the city was the target of Hezbollah rockets attacks in 2006, but the majority of the attacks were on Nahariya to the north. You may recall that Israel responded to the attacks with heavy bombing and an invasion 26 miles into Lebanon. They have since withdrawn and there is a cease-fire, but Israelis feel that Hezbollah seems to have reserved the right to ignore this agreement at will.

Baha'i Garden Haifa

Baha’i Garden Haifa

Haifa is also known as the spiritual home to the Baha’i Faith, one of the world’s newer religions started in Iran by a Persian nobleman named Bahaulla in 1842. Their basic belief is that God has sent another messenger (which happened to be Bahaulla) who is became The Bab, meaning the Gate to God. He is believed to be the latest messenger in a line of messengers that include Abraham, Jesus and  Mohammed. Bahaulla was exiled from Persia and sent to what was then called Palestine, which was ruled by the Ottoman Turks. Shortly after his arrival, he was imprisoned in Akko just across harbor from Haifa, under a house arrest of sorts, and it is there that he wrote the Baha’i books. The Baha’i religion accepts all people and  they believe that no single religion has a monopoly on God’s expectations of mankind or His wishes and plans. Their belief is that to achieve world peace, there should be no countries and no partisanship. It called to mind the words in John Lennon’s song, “Imagine” where he wrote “imagine all the people, sharing all the world”, which provides an interesting contrast to the Clint Eastwood  “make my day” sort of mentality that one associates with Israelis.

Baha’i followers also believe the garden is an extension of the soul and have built a very impressive one encompassing a whole hillside above the Haifa harbor. We spent a brief time at the garden, looking down from the hilltop at a series of elaborately landscaped and painstakingly manicured terraces to the golden domed tomb of Bahaulla at the bottom, although it was somewhat obscured by scaffolding erected for renovation. Across the bay we could see the house where he lived and wrote while a prisoner in Akko.  Akko, also called Acre, was the site of ferocious battles in Crusader times, with battles including such notables as Richard, the Lion Heart and Saladin among many others, with the city changing hands several times.

Basilca of the Annunciation - Nazareth

Basilca of the Annunciation – Nazareth

From Haifa we drove east, through the Jezreel Valley which we had seen from Mt. Carmel yesterday, to the town of Nazareth, Jesus’ boyhood home. The city has had as bloody a history as any other in the Holy Land with a series of wars and struggles played out inside its walls. There are souvenir shops lining the street displaying more Virgin Marys and Baby Jesuses for sale per square foot than any place in the country, and probably even the world.  Our destination is the Basilica of the Annunciation, built so they say on the spot (a cave actually) where the Angel Gabriel told Mary that she was to give birth to the Son of God. It is said, although I was never to clear on this part, that he told Joseph as well so he would not be unduly alarmed with the pregnancy in which he played no role

The town is populated primarily by Christian and Muslim Palestinians who seem to have a media battle going on for the hearts and minds of tourists and Christian Pilgrims. Large billboards proclaim that there is only one God and that is Allah and bad things will happen to non-believers (I am paraphrasing here), while other signs direct people to the Christian sites. The Muslims have petitioned to build a mosque taller than the Church of the Annunciation and they really crank up the volume on the 5 times a day call to prayer. The Christians on the other hand have the 5 major churches in Nazareth and hordes of Christian pilgrims from all over the globe who inundate the city daily and keep the economy going buying up all the Baby Jesuses and Mother Marys. Many of these shops are Muslim owned and thus it continues to be delicate balance. We hope that economy continues to prevail over religion – it makes for a much more peaceful country.

The city was larger than we expected, and is in fact the largest Arab speaking city in Israel and quite Third World with the exception of our destination, the Basilica of the Annunciation.  It is an imposing domed structure, sitting on a prominent hill overlooking the city. For hundreds of years the site has been maintained by Franciscan monks, who have so far managed to get along with their Muslim neighbors.  The current Basilica of the Annunciation was built in 1969 on the ruins of an older basilica from Byzantine times built 1600 years ago.  It is quite imposing from the

The Mikveh at Joseph's House - Nazareth

The Mikveh at Joseph’s House – Nazareth

outside, and inside very spacious, but also very simple. From the basilica we walked a short distance through a small garden to a church built in 1909 on the site that is believed to be where Joseph lived and had his workshop. We have found that almost every Christian site has had a church, or in some cases a series of churches, built over it, ostensibly to protect it. What is left below the church are ruins of walls, steps and part of a “mikveh”, a pool for performing a cleansing ritual before prayer – a practice that is still in use in Judaism today.

We were told that we should not envision houses from Biblical times as they are today. Quite often limestone caves would be utilized as living quarters, stables and crypts (not at the same time, of course). They also refer to some places as grottoes, which are defined as small caves with an attractive feature (like ferns growing inside or a little spring) – making for an upscale cave, one can surmise. We also saw Mary’s Well, the spot where an ancient spring provided water to all of Nazareth said to be used daily by the Virgin Mary and by Jesus as a boy.  During the 17th Century, some crafty entrepreneur bottled the water and sold it in France, perhaps a forerunner of Evian.

We wondered how anyone knows today where events so far in the past actually transpired. The answer lies with Emperor Constantine’s mother, Helena, who later came to be St. Helena in the Greek Orthodox Church.  As I mentioned earlier, Constantine converted to Christianity, and his mother became a devout Christian who traveled to the Holy Land to research holy sites and ensure churches were built to protect them. She did this in 326-328 AD, but since things moved slowly back in those days, she was able to complete her mission/detective work with some degree of accuracy (plus or minus a few miles probably) and establish what events from the gospels happened where. An interesting side note – everywhere we went the Greek Orthodox “Holy Spot” was a few yards or sometimes miles from the Roman Catholic “Holy Spot”.

We had parked in a small lot in the main part of the town where our van was wedged in among several vehicles. Upon exiting, our vehicle, a Mercedes van, unfortunately  exchanged paint with a Toyota. We were wondering if this is the sort of incident that triggers a riot between Christians and Muslims, So we watched with great interest as the Toyota driver came over to chat with Eilon. Rather than the expected fireworks, there was an apparently  cordial conversation ending in warm “shaloms “and a few smiles and we drove on our way. It’s good to see an absence of road rage, especially in such a holy place. Eilon seemed to know just about everybody in Israel and he told us that 99.99 per cent of the time, Jews and Muslims get along just fine and quite often form life-long friendships. It is the radical elements of both religions that cause all the uproar.

Our next stop Just east of Nazareth, was the village of Cana, which for Jesus would have been about a two hour walk (although we drove). Here Jesus performed his first miracle when he turned water into wine for a wedding celebration as described in the Book of John. It was a sleepy little village then, and not much has changed in two centuries, as long as you can overlook the cars and utility poles. We visited a Franciscan Church that was built in the 19th Century upon the ruins of a previous church, believed to be the one from Jesus’ time where the wedding took place. It was at this wedding that Jesus met several of the men who would become his disciples. Eilon told us that many couples choose to renew their vows here and in fact the main sanctuary was closed for just such an event so we just peeked into the smaller chapel.

The Sea of Galilee

The Sea of Galilee

From Cana we continued to drive East to the Sea of Galilee,  600 feet below sea level ,where we were scheduled for a boat ride and lunch. We were amazed to see ancient gnarled olive trees being hauled on flatbed trucks from time to time. Eilon says that they are sold to landscapers for the gardens of wealthy clients, particularly if they come from a special place such as around the Sea of Galilee. The Sea is actually fresh water, but is so large you often can’t see the other banks, so in olden times, many assumed it was a fresh water sea. It was quite placid and a dark blue under sunny skies. To the east were the Golan Heights, a series of hills, green with recent rains and covered with wildflowers – not at all the menacing mountains you would envision as looming over Israel given the media coverage of rocket attacks. However,  with missile launchers and tanks on them, It is apparent that they could certainly wreak havoc on most of Northern Israel.

On the Sea of Galilee with the Priests

On the Sea of Galilee with the Priests

As it turned out the boat was quite large and thus we shared it with other people – and some very interesting people at that. There were 28 Catholic priests and their bishop on board on a pilgrimage from the Philippines.  We rode out to the middle of the lake where we stopped for prayers and then we visited with the priests who we suspect might be real party animals if the bishop were not looking. They were some wild and crazy guys and really a lot of fun. They referred to the men’s room as the “smiley place” because they say people are always happier once they have been. I do take issue with that – some toilets probably are happier places than others, given the frequent absence of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval we observed in some of the public places. Fortunately Eilon knows all the good “smiley places” and advises us well.

The Golan Heights above the Sea of Galilee

The Golan Heights above the Sea of Galilee

We had lunch at a waterside restaurant and ate the special, St. Peter’s Fish, which is a delicious tilapia, caught fresh where our boat docked at a village called Ein Gev, the site of a former kibbutz, on the eastern bank of the Sea of Gallilee at the foot of the Golan Heights. After lunch, we drove around the southern end of the Sea to our hotel, which is on a kibbutz called Nof Genosaur, just outside of Tiberias.  The idea of a kibbutz was conceived by European Jews in the first decade of the 20th Century. The founding principles are self-sufficiency and equality with everyone working for the common good (a first cousin to Communism). The kibbutzim (that’s the plural) were highly productive farming communities which governed themselves. People living there were called “kibbutzniks” and their greatest moment is said to be in the war for independence, when a group of kibbutzniks stopped an entire Syrian armored column in 1948.

Our rooms were converted from kibbutz dormitories and have had a few amenities added to cater to the tourist in each of us (like private bathrooms). We took a short walk to the lake shore, although it is a longer walk than it was during the days of the kibbutz. They have had a 5 year drought here and the water levels are down significantly, but the Sea is still as deep as 150 feet in places. The Sea is fed by the Jordan River and sits astride the Great Rift Valley which extends all the way into East Africa.  That evening we drove into Tiberias, founded in Roman times by Herod Antipas, who you may recall was one of the sons of Herod, the Great. In what was no doubt a sucking up move,   he named it after the Emperor of Rome, Tiberias. It became one of Judaism’s holy cities with many notable scholars and rabbis living here. The Crusaders were also here and built St. Peter’s Church.  Today Tiberias is noted as tourist town featuring water sports and hot springs. We had dinner at a waterfront restaurant called The Decks, specializing in grilled food. We had fabulous salmon, lamb and beef. It was a rainy night which somewhat obscured what would have been great views of the Sea of Galilee and the Golan Heights beyond it. On the upside, the rain made for a very restful night at the kibbutz so we could prepare for another day of hard-core touring.



The Holy Land Part 2 – Sea of Galilee to Jerusalem

 The Holy Land

Part Two:  Sea of Galilee to Jerusalem, Israel


February 25, 2010

Dateline Tiberius, Israel

Latitude at Tiberias, 32.47 Degrees North, Longitude 35.31 Degrees East


Today when we awoke, the sun was shining and from the grounds of our kibbutz, we could see golden wheat fields with Sea of Galilee in the distance.  Our plan was to explore northern Israel and around the Sea of Galilee, which is sometimes referred to as Kinneret in the Bible and the Talmud. It is 700 feet below sea level and getting lower, as the lake continues to shrink. Today it is approximately 13 miles long by 8 miles wide and yields 1500 tons of fish per year, primarily tilapia, also known as St. Peter’s fish.

Our first stop was right at our kibbutz at the Ancient Boat Museum. Due to the continued drought, the Sea of Galilee water levels have continued to drop, which enabled the discovery of an ancient wooden fishing   boat, preserved over the centuries in the muck. No one claims that this boat was used by Jesus, but it dates from the time of Jesus and is built in a style known to be utilized back then. All that is left are the ribs and keel, blackened and petrified, but you can get the general idea.

The Church of the Beatitudes on the Sea of Galilee

The Church of the Beatitudes on the Sea of Galilee

From there we drove up the northeastern perimeter road to the gentle slopes above the Sea of Galilee to what has become known as the Church of the Beatitudes on the Mount of the Beatitudes, built close to the place where Jesus is believed to have delivered the Sermon on the Mount, unless of course you are Greek Orthodox and then the sacred spot is about a mile away marked by a Greek Orthodox Church.   The good news is they agree that it was this “mount” (mountain is too grand a word to describe it) and they agree essentially on the text of the sermon. The Church of the Beatitudes is built on the top of the hill, although the sermon was given somewhere below on the hillside versus the hilltop. The church is quite modest -gray stone trimmed in white with a dome with six sided angled walls supporting it. It sort of had a Victorian feel strangely enough (must be the white trim) with arched porticos framing the Sea of Galilee below. It was a beautiful setting with silhouettes of date palms, interspersed with roses and oleander. The Sermon on the Mount, you may recall, was a radical departure from the hellfire and brimstone of the Old Testament which was laden with “thou shalt nots” and often gruesome punishments when a “thou” actually did what was forbidden. You could be turned into a pillar of salt for example, or perhaps be swallowed whole by a whale. The focus of Jesus’ sermon was on goodness an included nine Beatitudes such as “blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the meek and so forth. The complete quote can be found in the New Testament, Matthew 5, Verses 3-12.

From the Mount of the Beatitudes, we went to the village of Tabgha,  (pronounced Tab-gah with the accent on “Tab”)which was originally a Greek name, later mangled by the Arabs  to its present form, which originally meant Seven Springs. In Jesus’ time there were indeed seven springs, but they are no more and the area has gone a little dusty except for where there is irrigation. The Byzantines built a monastery and chapel here to commemorate the place where Jesus fed 5,000 people by multiplying five loaves of bread and two fish which was all that was on hand at the time. The church is called The Church of the Multiplication and there is an ancient mosaic with symbols of a fish and a loaf of bread which was found in the ruins of the original church on the site. Inside it is very plain with a vaulted stone ceiling, metal chandelier and straight backed pews. There is part of the original mosaic showing a loaf of bread and a fish, along with a piece of bedrock under the altar, which is said to be the rock upon which this miracle occurred. This structure was built in the 1980’s on the remains of a Fifth Century basilica. The old church was destroyed in the 6th Century and it lay in ruins in the intervening centuries. The new construction was kept very simple, a squared off structure made of dark gray native stone. We were struck by how plain the churches are here compared with the extravagance of those in Europe.

Tabgha is also the home of the Franciscan Church of the Primacy, built on the spot where Jesus is said to have identified Peter as the leader of the disciples. It is across from Kursi on the opposite shore, the site of the ruins of a former Byzantine Christian monastery, where Jesus is said to have exorcised demons from a local man and they (the demons) entered a herd of swine grazing nearby , prompting them (the swine) to run off a cliff and drown in the lake.  This story is related in the books of  both Matthew and Luke.

Ruins of the  House of St. Peter at Capernaum

Ruins of the House of St. Peter at Capernaum

Our next stop was Capernaum (pronounced Kah-purr-nah-em with the accent on “purr”), a village originally built by the Romans on the road to Damascus on the north end of the Sea of Galilee. It was a place where Jesus spent much of his adult life and at that time, it was a port on the Sea of Galilee, although today it is quite a distance from the shoreline.  It was also the hometown of Peter, who became a disciple, and who made his livelihood fishing in the Sea of Galilee. Jesus told him that he would teach him to be a Fisher of Men as in order that he may bring people to believe in the teachings of Jesus as the Son of God.  Jesus gave many sermons and performed a number of miracles here and in the surrounding area that are described in the gospels of the New Testament. These miracles include walking on water to rescue his disciples, who had set out for Capernaum in a storm. According to the story from the New Testament, Peter got out of the boat as Jesus beckoned him to walk toward him, but his faith waivered and he started to sink. Jesus reached out a hand to rescue him and made the “O ye of little faith, why did you doubt me” comment – the lesson being, you will sink without faith. Today in Capernaum, there are the ruins of two synagogues, one built on top of the ruins of the other with the older one dating to Jesus’ time and it is believed that he taught there. The newer synagogue was destroyed by the Persians in 637 when all Jewish temples were leveled. There is also an octagonal Byzantine Church built above the ruins of houses dating back to that same time, and one of which is believed to be the home of Peter. There is today a modern glass and steel structure erected above these ruins to protect them from further weathering and you can see excavations of the wall fragments of the structure from Jesus’ time through the glass floor.

The Jordan River as it exits the Sea of Galilee

The Jordan River as it exits the Sea of Galilee

Leaving Capernaum we came to the River Jordan and took a quick walk across (in the usual way – on a bridge). It is narrow here just above the Sea of Galilee, more of a Chattahoochee than a Mississippi, and was covered in reeds on both banks. We would see more of the Jordan later in its more impressive version later on in the day.

From the Jordan Valley we ascended to the Golan Heights, the subject of a lot of warfare (or unrest as the guide books like to call it) over the centuries.  It is a high fertile plateau which borders Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. Beyond it we can see peaks in the distance with snow on them, including he highest peak in Israel , Mt.  Hermon, at over 8,000 feet.  The hillsides were a vivid green and were covered with yellow wildflowers. We did not expect a war zone to be so scenic, nor so peaceful.  The persistence of the natural world in the wake of people killing one another is good to see.

A View of Lebanon from the Golan Heights

A View of Lebanon from the Golan Heights

As expected there were many Army bases en route and we traveled on roads used by tanks not so long ago (and will likely be used again). Today Israel occupies the Golan Heights for several miles inside the Lebanese border with observation posts on every major mountain top. We stopped at one that was active during the Yom Kippur War in 1973, so called because the Israelis were attacked on Yom Kippur, but today, the Israelis have taken up positions further inside Lebanon and this is now a tourist stop. There are life-size metal cutouts of silhouettes of soldiers on the sandbags, and in the bunkers to give the general


A former Israeli Outpost on the Golan Heights

A former Israeli Outpost on the Golan Heights

idea of what it looked like.  It was wet, cold and foggy, but we got occasional glimpses of both Syria and Lebanon in the distance. Israel originally took the Golan Heights in the 6 Day War in 1967. Eilon told us that they came very close to losing the Yom Kippur War and they have moved the observation posts forward to ensure they don’t get caught unaware again. While their presence there is a bone of contention with Lebanon and Syria, it is likely they will continue to hold it, since without their occupation,  all of northern Israel would again be vulnerable to rocket attacks and shelling.

We then drove by the ruins of Nimrod’s Palace, just below Golan Heights. Nimrod was the great grandson of Noah. He was known as a hunter and builder of cities, with some projects more successful than others. Many believe that he took on the very ambitious project of building the Tower of Babel, with the idea that if he built it tall enough, he could reach heaven. God of course probably got a huge chuckle out of this lame idea. As the story goes, this activity displeased God and he consequently confused them by not allowing them to understand each other’s words (and thus the word “babble” ). What was not detailed in the Bible comes to us from a Roman historian, Flavius Joseph, who may or may not have known what he was writing about.  Not much of Nimrod’s décor was left after a Mameluke sultan built his fortress there on top of Nimrod’s digs, and thus the real story of Nimrod remains untold.

For lunch we stopped in a small village called Masada (not to be confused with Masada near the Dead Sea).  The village’s name is pronounced with accent on last syllable, the mountain is pronounced with the accent on the middle syllable. Masada is another Druze village which seems to be where a lot of the good food is found. Eilon took us to the Nedal Restaurant, where we had shwarma sandwiches which are similar to the Greek gyros.  They make large spool looking chunks of meat (no beef, no pork, but just about everything else is okay) packed tightly together and roasted as a single piece. Then they shave off thin slices and serve it with a sauce and veggies wrapped in pita bread.  We had our choice of lamb or chicken. It was absolutely delicious. We met Mr. Nedal the proprietor who served up some wonderful falafel  (pronounced fah-laff-el with the accent on “laff”),  which I found to be very much like hush puppies. I tried to explain hush puppies to Eilon, but there was way too much lost in translation so I gave that up.  Food that I always turned my nose up back at home is good here – hummus, tahini, falafel – I loved it all.

Banias  National Park

Banias National Park

After lunch we drove north to Banias National Park to see the headwaters of the Jordan River. We were surprised to see waterfalls and lush vegetation – not at all what we expected. We took a short hike down to the falls and got very wet from the mist as well as the rain. The falls are not high, but very beautiful spilling over large boulders and splashing into a series of shallow pools. The Jordan at this point is also called Hermon Stream since it originates in the foothills of Mt. Hermon. Trees are tall and plentiful here and include oriental plane, willow, Syrian ash. Ferns and wildflowers were sprouting everywhere. On leaving the park we drove by Caesarea Phillipi, so called in the time of Jesus, but today it is also called Banias.  It was here in the foothills of Mt. Hermon, that Jesus identified Peter as the rock upon which he would build the church. He also told his disciples of his imminent death in Jerusalem and his plans to go there to fulfill God’s plan for him.

From Banias we drove to Safed  (which is the English name),  but the locals call it Sfatz (pronounced Sss-Fotz) . It sits high up in the mountains, originally built on the cone shaped Mt. Canaan, north of the Sea of Galilee, but today it covers several hilltops. The acropolis of Mt. Canaan was the site of a Knights Templar fortress, and the scene of fierce fighting in War for Independence in 1948. At the time of this war, the city was 90% Arab , and only 10% Jewish, and these were ultra Orthodox Jews, better at praying than fighting, and thus the Jewish victory here was hailed as a miracle from God by many. Others give credit to the Haganah, a clandestine military group who banded together against the British when they held the mandate and later formed an army to fight the Arabs in the War for Independence.

From the acropolis on a clear day (which we did not have,) you can see the Sea of Galilee to the south and all the surrounding hills and valleys with the Jordan winding through it.  On this acropolis, in ancient times, Hebrews would come once a year to light a fire to indicate the start of Holy Days. Since no one had calendars back then, the chief rabbis determined exactly what day this would be. Then others would light fires on other hills to get the word out to the other calendar-challenged folks across the land and as far away as Babylon (current day Iraq), where many Jews were enslaved. Safed is one of the 4 holy cities of the Talmud. Whereas the Torah is the holy scripture of Judaism, the Talmud is a collection of writings by rabbis interpreting laws outlined in the Torah. In Safed a sect of Judaism called the Kabbalists flourished. The Kabbala is a discipline and a school of thought intended to explain the mystical relationship between the Creator and His creations. The name means Light of God” and their mission is to study and learn holy secrets (and apparently they keep them too since they are very secretive).  The other 3 most holy cities in Judaism are Hebron, Jerusalem and Tiberias.  Safed and Tiberias are Jewish strong holds, but Hebron is in the heart of West Bank Palestinian turf and East Jerusalem is Palestinian, so this situation is always ripe for a few skirmishes.

We visited a series of galleries built along the narrow streets of an old part of the city, now called the Artist’s Quarter, its exterior walls riddled with bullet holes from the Yom Kippur War and the War for Independence.  The Artist’s Quarter was formerly known as the Arab Quarter until 1948 when the Arabs were kicked out after the Israelis defeated them. Inside the buildings

Tevya and the mezusah at Safed

Tevya and the mezuzah at Safed

were a number of one of a kind jewelry stores, artisan’s shops and art galleries- many sponsored by wealthy Jewish Americans. We bought a mezuzah case carved from olive wood. A mezuzah is a quote from a religious text rolled up in parchment and placed in a case outside the doorframe of a Jewish home. We met the artisan who created it, a gentleman who is a dead ringer for Tevya from Fiddler on the Roof. We are non-compliant however, since we have only the case and not the text, and it hangs in our library and not on the doorframe.

There is a large community of Ultra Orthodox Jews here, with the traditional ear curls, prayer shawls, black suits, and stove-pipe hats, even worn by small boys, although attire varies based on sects and regions of origin.  Safed has changed hands a number of times and the Jews here were persecuted ruthlessly over the years by everyone from the Arab muftis (men who interpret Islamic Law) to the Crusaders – always in the name of religion. The Ultra Orthodox Jews returned to Safed after the Crusaders banished all the Jews they failed to kill and have managed to remain here ever since. They believe that if you are buried in Safed, you will go straight to Gan Eden (the Garden of Eden) when you die. Ultra orthodox Jews spend their lives in prayer and thus have traditionally been poor, but today they are supported by the government and do not work or pay taxes, and typically isolate themselves from the community. There are 18 different Jewish “movements”, some more secular than others, some more evangelical, e.g the Hassidic Jews. They once believed that the Messiah would come when the Jews finally had a homeland, but now have modified it to the Messiah will come when all Jews observe Jewish law, which leaves a lot more wiggle room.

We headed back to Tiberias and our second night at the kibbutz through the beautiful Hula Valley (this names has various spellings). It was a swamp in Biblical times, but it was reclaimed in the Twentieth Century to make it into  a fertile agricultural area. We also drove by the tel at Hazor, a Canaanite city rebuilt by King Solomon to control the Golan Heights.  Unfortunately we had no time to explore, but it is said to be the richest and largest known archaeological site in Israel. There was a Canaanite city here in Biblical times which Joshua is said to have burned to the ground and archaeologists have found evidence of such a catastrophic fire dating back to that period.  There were many battles fought here chronicled in the Bible including those led by the legendary military hero, Barak. The afternoon turned chilly and rainy as we reached the kibbutz and so we had a nap and the predictable hotel buffet, our heads spinning from all the history that came alive for us today.

February 26, 2010

Dateline: Dead Sea, Israel

Dipping a Toe in the Jordan River at Yardinet

Dipping a Toe in the Jordan River at Yardinet

We left our kibbutz/hotel on the Sea of Galilee this morning to see some places around the area before heading south to the Dead Sea. It was raining again so we bundled up in our hoods and ponchos and set out. Our first stop was at Yardinet on the Jordan River, a place the Israelis have set aside for Christian pilgrims who want to be baptized in the waters of the Jordan. And despite the early hour, there were already pilgrims by the busload ready to take the plunge, so to speak. There are references to the River Jordan found throughout the Bible, perhaps most famously in the story of the life of John the Baptist, whose mother was actually a cousin of the Virgin Mary.  John the Baptist called upon the wandering people of the desert to become purified of their sins by bathing in the waters.

You may recall from the Bible that he met a very unfortunate end by criticizing the marriage of Herod Antipas, who had dumped his wife and married his sister-in-law, Herodias, (who also happened to be his niece).  Herod Antipas had imprisoned John for his comments on his adultery and incestuous  family tree issues, but had not ordered him killed, fearing it would cause an uprising. However on Herod Antipas’ birthday, Herodias had her daughter Salome (who was both his step-daughter and also a niece) dance for him. He was pleased and offered her anything she wanted. At her mother’s prompting, she is said to have requested that the head of John the Baptist be brought to her on a platter and Herod Antipas ordered it done. John’s baptisms took place close to Jericho, but nowadays, that area, deep in Palestinian territory, is thought to have too much “unrest” to have a bunch of tourists and their buses. It is unfortunate because the Palestinians could really use the revenue, but they don’t have any say in the matter.  We had hoped to see something of Jericho, but apparently there is not much left standing from the time when the walls came tumbling down.

Yardinet is believed to be the spot where the prophet Elijah made many of his prophecies, but today it has a lot of concrete and asphalt, so it’s sort of hard to really feel the spirit here. Ministers from all over the world bring their congregations here. Today there were groups form Cracow, Poland and Costa Mesa, CA.  There is a large building with a gift shop where you can buy or rent a white robe for your baptism and large changing rooms where you can put it on.  The gowns have a logo and photo on the front, and look a lot like hospital gowns, but with no opening  in the back. They become translucent  when wet, which is a very good reason to have the rule that you must have some sort of swimwear or clothing on under the gown. Eilon tells us there were some pretty shocking sights prior to the enactment of the rule and seeing the crowds of pilgrims, we could easily envision the horror.  We just dabbled our toes in the water and decided to forego the robes, charming though they were. Besides it was raining so hard we were every bit as wet as the newly baptized.

We did a drive by of Mount Tabor, which is considered to be the place of the transfiguration of Christ. Per the New Testament, Jesus went to the top of the mountain with disciples Peter, James and John and God spoke to them and said Jesus was his son and “Jesus’ face shone like the sun and his robes were as white as light”. On a more secular note, it was the site of a number of fortresses over the centuries, as far back as the Third Century BC. It is this mountain that is referenced in Judges  in the Old Testament as the place where Deborah tells  Barak, that same Israelite military leader, to go out and engage the enemy du jour on this spot. Deborah was sort of the Joan of Arc of those days and she and Barak became Jewish legends.

We visited a village called Beth Alpha, where the ruins of a 6th Century synagogue were found in 1928 by colonists of a nearby kibbutz. Its most remarkable feature was a mosaic showing the 12 signs of the Zodiac, along with scenes from the Old Testament including the Ark of the Covenant and the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. Eilon told us this mosaic is an example of Judaism trying to accommodate non-believers by incorporating pagan beliefs into their own religious art. From there we traveled a short distance east to Bet She’an, the best preserved Roman-Byzantine city in Israel. There are two main places of historical interest at Bet She’an.  There is the very obvious mesa-like tel and the vast expanse of Roman ruins. The State of Israel has created a national  park  of over  400 acres which is at present  only 10 per cent excavated.

At the tel, the first settlement found at the bottommost layer dates back to 5000 BC. The tel has 27 strata of civilization with evidence of 16 different cities. Up several layers dating to around 1600 BC, was the site of a Canaanite city that was under Egyptian rule. King Saul and his Israelites tried, but never took this city and in fact, Saul was defeated  and killed in battle at Mt. Gilboa and the Philistines of Bet She’an displayed the bodies of King Saul and his son on the city walls, which was quite the thing to do in those days – the thinking was that this strong message might discourage others inclined to mess with the people of Bet She’an.  Later King David did take the city despite the dire warnings and it became a regional capital during  his reign.

Then the Assyrians destroyed the city in 732 BC and it lay in ruins until first the Greeks came and built a Hellenistic City, followed by the Hasmoneans who were Jewish  and they kicked out the gentiles. Then the Romans came along and made it one of the 10 Cities of the Decapolis and named it Nysa-Scythe. The Decapolis represented the easternmost front of the Roman Empire. They were a semi-autonomous group of 10 city-states with a large degree of self rule in the current day countries of Israel, Jordan and Syria.

Palladius Street at the Roman Ruins - Bet She'an

Palladius Street at the Roman Ruins – Bet She’an

It was common to slaughter people who were defeated so there was a  lot of killing going on with the perpetual to-and -fro of conquest here at Bet  She’an,  but when the Romans came and built their city (the ruins we see today) for a while people of different religions actually lived together peacefully ( a novel concept for these parts). Roman people who were pagans, lived alongside Jews, Samaritans (who had a religion similar to Jews) and Christians in relative peace during the greatest period of Bet She’an. This all came to an end after the Jewish Revolt in 66 AD when the Roman slaughtered the Jews in retribution. The Byzantines came in and the Christians were on top for a while, but then the Arabs took over. Then in 749 AD it was as if God decided enough with the killing already because a major earthquake in devastated the city and it never recovered. The ruins of  today are essentially as the earthquake left them.

Despite the city being in ruins, you can easily envision the size and splendor of the place in its heyday. One of the most intact places is the Theater, where dramatic performances were staged with 7,000 seats in three tiers in a half circle, with intricately carved columns and statuary in granite and marble. There were several bathhouses, the largest of which was about 9 dunams in size (a dunam =over 10,000 square feet). They had hot and tepid baths, decorative plaster walls, marble and mosaic floors and a heating system.  Equally grand was Palladius Street, a colonnaded street close to 500 feet long, lined with shops.  (Palladius was governor of the province at that time.) The street was paved with hand hewn stones with grooves etched in them from hundreds of chariots and hollows scooped out from thousands of footsteps over the years. There were also temples to various Roman deities, including a fountain and a nymphaeum (a structure dedicated to nymphs,which were minor forest-dwelling Greek goddesses in the form of fairy-like nubile young women, which seemed to be all the rage in Roman times). There was a central market (agora) added by the Byzantines, an amphitheater for gladiator contests, and a hippodrome for chariot races with seating for 6,000. Of course, the seating capacity became considerably less once the Crusaders arrived and pillaged the hand carved stone seats to build a fortress.  And did I mention the indoor plumbing? Those Romans just continue to impress. You have to wonder what happened to these guys – they were fabulous designers, artisans and engineers, but then you’d have to admit that their people management skills were pretty poor.

We had lunch in the town of Bet She’an and noticed that many of the inhabitants did not look like the Jews we had met to date. Eilon told us that many Moroccan Jews have settled here and thus the diversity in appearances. There is also a large Arabic population here and they look very much like the Moroccans so it’s a little hard to tell who is who, which is not altogether a bad thing if you want people to get along. Whoever they were, they were very hospitable people.  Lunch again was delicious shwarma (chicken and lamb) and here they put your French fries into the sandwich. The restaurant was at a little place very similar to an American deli, minus the pork selections of course. A local guy asked us to pick his lottery numbers for him since his theory is that Americans are very lucky. We also bought some lottery tickets, but so far have not heard if the Grand Prize is ours. A note on luck: Eilon says in Israel, people do not say they are lucky, they say they are blessed. I was wondering if when they happen to be unlucky if they say they are cursed. Eilon seemed to be stumped by this one, but it could be the language thing. Some things (especially jokes and puns) just don’t translate well.

From Bet She’an we continued to drive south along the banks of the Jordan River, which used to empty into the Gulf of Aqaba, which opens onto the Red Sea. However there is not much emptying going on nowadays since all the water is drawn out for irrigation and human consumption. We continued southward to the western bank of the Dead Sea. The border with Jordan at this point is in the middle of the “Sea”.  We drove along on a patrol road used to guard the border where they have an electric fence with sensors. Eilon told us that one of his jobs in the military was to track down intruders, and we could imagine him encouraging them to “make his day” in a Clint Eastwood moment. Since 85% of Jordan is made up of Palestinians, many dislocated from current day Israel, the Israelis stay vigilant. Relations are good between the two countries, but there are always the wackos to watch out for. On the Israeli side two HumVees patrol inside a double fence. We didn’t see any Jordanian patrol so, we surmised that Israeli wackos attacking Jordan are not an issue. The saying here is that not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslim so they do racial profiling as a matter of policy. This probably does not hold true since there are a growing number of radical Jews who are bent on mayhem (e.g.,the assassin of Yitzak Rabin), but then who are we gentiles to disprove Jewish adages while in their country.

We saw the Moab Mountains in the distance, including Mt. Nebo which we would visit later in Jordan. This is the mountain from which Moses saw the Promised Land after wandering in the desert for 40 years. There were hundreds and hundreds of green houses growing vegetables, fruit and flowers for both internal sale and export on the Jordanian side of the border. We also passed rows and rows of date palms, clustered together in groves to facilitate irrigation.

We were driving through hyena country – more so during Biblical times than now – it’s pretty slim pickings for hyenas now days.  Eilon told us that they do have wild ibex here, which is a wild goat sort of animal with scimitar-like  horns, although this goat can weigh up to 200 pounds. The horns on males form a semicircle with little ridges every few inches, and measure up to 56 inches, although the females only have about 15 inch horns.  A long scruffy beard sort of detracts from the regal bearing of the animal – sort of like seeing a man in a tuxedo wearing white sox. They also have wild boar here and we imagine a hyena versus wild boar grudge match to be quite an interesting dance indeed. The landscape got more and more desert-like as we drove south.  On the Israeli side it is called the Judean Desert and on the Jordanian side it is called the Moab Desert. Rising to our right we saw a series of caramel colored limestone Flash Floods at the Dead Sea smmesa-topped cliffs with gushing chocolate milk hued waterfalls formed by rain run-off. There were some torrential rains earlier in the day and there were flash flood warnings, not of Biblical proportions, but enough to wash a vehicle off the road, or failing that, enough to smash a boulder into the side of a car. Or a car could always run over a submerged rock and rip the bottom out of the vehicle. Or there was also the option that the road could be washed out, invisible under the churning brown water which could easily sink a vehicle.  We saw many rubberneckers along the route. They have flood hunters here (sort of like tornado chasers in the US) and they actually lose a few when there is an exceptional rain. We had to stop and splash through newly formed creeks several times and so this turned out to be an Adventure with a capital “A”. We later learned that the road was closed only an hour after we passed through. Continuing south, Eilon pointed out the Qumran Mountains, home for centuries of the Dead Sea Scrolls and we can actually see some of the caves from the road. We would visit this site later in our trip.

We got our first look at Masada, the ancient fortress atop what we would call a mesa in the American West, and in fact the landscape is very Arizona-like. The fortress was originally built by Herod the Great and later occupied by the Jewish Zealots who were besieged by the Romans.  We would also visit this site later. The area is not totally devoid of vegetation, for there are many acacia bushes– trees would be a misnomer – growing  in many of the draws, also called wadis. The word “wadi” can describe anything from a ditch to a canyon, some more impressive than others. The size of the acacia would lead you to speculate that giraffes would never have evolved with those long necks here. It looks like a close relative of West Texas mesquite. Scholars believe that the Crown of Thorns that Jesus was forced to wear at his crucifixion was from the acacia.

We had to stop at a check point at Wadi Darga –which was also flooded. Wadi Darga falls into the lesser category in the world of wadis, but we were to see the more impressive wadis later in the trip. The guns at the checkpoint, however, were quite impressive, and as we passed through, we resolved to keep wisecracks to a bare minimum.  After a short ride, we arrived at a tourist area called Ein Bokek and the Hotel Prima Oasis. Eilon left us at the hotel and drove back to Tel Aviv (an hour and a half drive) to spend Shabbat (the Sabbath) with this family. Shabbat starts at sundown on Friday and lasts until sundown on Saturday. We will spend Shabbat having a day of R&R. After checking in, we took a walk down to the shore of the Dead Sea, envisioning some charming little picturesque bars along the shoreline where we could have cocktails and marvel at being at the lowest spot on earth, 1400 feet below sea level and getting lower every year, due to the ongoing drought and the extensive irrigation from the Jordan River. The waterline retreats one meter (3 feet) per year. The hotels  also contribute to dropping levels of the Dead Sea, utilizing canals to channel water into their spas. Engineers are working on the problem, but have to contend with maintaining the level of salinity. No picturesque bars were found, just some cabanas, changing rooms and outdoor showers and a lone McDonalds. We get the impression that the nightlife on the Dead Sea is well – dead. We did find a hotel that was serving wine outside so we settled for that.

Ein Gedi smIt was striking how much color there is in the desert here when the sun is out. The Dead Sea was a turquoise blue in the shallows and blue-green where it is deeper. The hills visible across the water in Jordan were cream colored limestone with purple highlights as sun set. On the Israeli side the sandy beaches were a khaki tan, with occasional scrub foliage, a sage green. The sky was a mix of pale blue, going to dark blue over the hills of Jordan as the storm moved east. One of the primary minerals of the Dead Sea is sulfur, and there was a strong smell of it in the air. I’m thinking this may be where the early Biblical scribes got the idea for the way Hell smells.  There is an abundance of Dead Sea Mud – world renowned for its mineral properties for health and cosmetic uses, but more on this later.

We returned to the hotel and took a tour of the spa and then settled in for our routine hotel buffet dinner and met the only obnoxious people of the entire trip. Unfortunately, yes, they were Ugly Americans, and as much as I hate to promote any stereotypes, I must say that they were a tour group from New York. Here are quote of a few things overheard to give you the flavor of the evening: “Leonard, this meat has too much fat. Why did you get me a piece with so much fat?” and “ Murray, what’s with the cold soup? Get the waiter over here. What do you mean they don’t have waiters? I’m paying a fortune for this hotel and they don’t have waiters?” Fortunately we had another group of American tourists to offset the obnoxious one, who were African American Baptists from South Carolina who were real party animals considering there was no liquor involved. We could only imagine what they would be like with a few margaritas.

That night we had a big thunderstorm (this time it did seem to be of Biblical proportions) which we wished had come sooner to drown out the whining of the spouses of Leonard and Murray, but then again you can’t be lucky (or blessed) all the time.

February 27, 2010

Dateline: Dead Sea, Israel

The Dead Sea , 47 miles long and 10 miles across, is not only the lowest place on earth,  it is the saltiest sea on earth, and is so mineral laden that it is 26% solid, 74% liquid.  . There are no boats on the lake and no fish in it due to the salinity.  The Dead Sea is fed only by rainwater nowadays. The water from the Jordan never gets here since it is dammed in an effort to conserve every drop of fresh water possible.

A Dip in the Dead Sea and a Sampling of its Famous Mud

A Dip in the Dead Sea and a Sampling of its Famous Mud

The day dawned chilly and rainy, not that we were awake to see the dawn, but we deduced that it was so, and the leaden skies were overcast.  All the fabulous colors from yesterday had gone a soft dove grey. Despite the weather and the chill in the air, we took a dip in Dead Sea just to say we did, but found you really can’t dip much. One issue is that you are way too buoyant and you sort of bob on the surface like a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day balloon. The other issue is that the water is very shallow, like only knee deep even fifty yards or so from the shore.  The water does make your skin feel good – very slick, but not slimy, and soft. The bottom is quite mucky, but not in an unpleasant way. It is very silky – like more of a spa feel than a sinkhole-suck you down in quicksand sort of feel. Despite the rain we were able to see a few of what I will call salt bergs (as opposed to icebergs), most prevalent along the shoreline where water has evaporated, leaving chunks of salt sculpted into free form pillars and mounds. I was thinking perhaps this is what inspired the pillar of salt in the Bible story of Lot’s wife. Did people of the time wonder “whatever happened to that nice Mrs. Lot from across the street?” Anyway, the drizzle morphed into a pelting rain which was indeed getting unpleasant and so we resolved to check a “Swim in the Dead Sea” off our To Do List and move on.

The hotel spa had a heated pool with water pumped directly from the Dead Sea, so we went there and had a much more relaxing dip. They also had steam rooms (vault like rooms with big stone slabs like the Turkish hammams) and saunas so you could have your choice of wet or dry heat. We considered massages, but could not get an appointment until late afternoon so we decided to explore Ein Bokek, which was not much of an expedition, since it is only a cluster of hotels and a few restaurants, but by this time the rain and dreary skies had moved on and we decided to walk back to a place we had seen earlier for lunch.

We believed  that the place was called Mohammed’s Taj Mahal, if the sign outside was correct, but then there were some other indications that it might be called the Peace and Love Restaurant, given the logo on the cocktail napkins. (no connection to Sidney’s Peace and Love on Jost Van Dyke that we know of). The napkins have a peace symbol on them and then have a slogan about quenching thirst in the Sinai. Of course the nearest desert is the Negev and the Sinai is actually in Egypt, but then the Taj Mahal is in India too, so we decided the vibe here is intended to be that of a cultural melting pot and we should not over think it too much. The structure was a vast Bedouin tent like thing with big tasseled cushions for chairs and tables,

Two of Mohammed's Waiters

Two of Mohammed’s Waiters

perhaps a foot off the floor in front of the cushions. We opted to have some wine and look at the menu out back by a swimming pool where there were real tables and chairs with a view of the cliffs above the Dead Sea. The staff rushed about bringing cushions from inside to replace the rain soaked ones to keep our bottoms dry, which we certainly appreciated.

We did notice soldiers on the cliff tops with rifles and remembered we were in a tourist enclave within the West Bank after all, but it is amazing how quickly you get used to such things. And of course, we had some more wine to calm our nerves, and of course we were fresh out of the spa, so we were nothing, if not relaxed. The owner came out to meet us and we called him Mohammed given the signage out front, although his name may have been Habib or Mustafa for all we knew, but he was much too gracious to correct us. Mohammed and his staff were Arabic speaking Palestinians and they brought us an array of complimentary and tasty

Our Feast at Mohammed's

Our Feast at Mohammed’s

Arabic snacks  comprised of hummus, tahini, baba-ghanoush, pita bread, olives, goat cheese and of course more wine – all wonderfully fresh and delicious. And everything was delivered with the utmost warmth and hospitality, and so we decided to have more wine and stay for lunch – which, as it turned out,  could probably tie the Guinness World Record for the longest lunch ever since it was well past dark-thirty when we finally left. We ordered the mixed grill – chicken, lamb, beef and maybe goat (not really sure what it was, but it was all excellent) and also kebabs (lamb sausage) There were many vegetable side dishes including cous cous – I counted 12 different dishes on the table at one point with no two alike.

Mohammed came out and pulled up a chair to visit with us. We found his English was good and thought  perhaps our eating all that Arabic food made him easier for us to understand, but then he told us he had lived in the US for several years.  We found the Palestinians we met to be very affectionate people although the hugging  and kissing is between men and men or women and women– not men and women. Public displays of affection between the sexes are not kosher in Muslim society (to really mix a metaphor). This affection in no way seems gay, but rather like the European custom. Homophobes can relax – the men are not interested, just expressing friendship.

Mohammed and the Shisha

Mohammed and the Shisha

Then Mohammed offered a little after lunch treat called the “shisha” or water pipe, also called a hookah. (not to be confused with water pipes that contain hashish or opium – same device – different content). The shisha is typically used with charred apple wood that is lit (similar to charcoal) and is passed from person to person and smoked. There was some initial choking, sputtering and giggling going on before we got the hang of it. There were some mixed reviews in our group about how good the shisha smoking actually was. As one of the coughers and hackers, I passed on further indulgence. We had admired the T shirts that the waiters had on (courtesy of Smirnoff Vodka) and Mohammed came up with two of them for us – both very small, but then the waiters weren’t exactly Plus sizes.  We thanked him profusely and took them. I wear mine frequently, and launder it carefully and remember the day fondly.

As the afternoon wore on (we found it wears much more quickly when wine is involved), Mohammed invited us inside to join a Bar Mitzvah Party he was hosting (no this is not a “typo” – the Arab Muslim restaurateur was actually hosting a major Jewish celebration) There was to be music and belly dancing and feasting. We had already done the feasting part, so we removed our shoes and settled into our cushions for some cocktail hour wine, although we couldn’t help but notice that the couple next to us did have some really good looking and good smelling French fries. And so, despite our gluttonous lunch, the next thing we knew, we had French fries too and we were wolfing them down as if we were starved. They don’t actually call them French fries – their name in Arabic is something that sounds like “blank loot”, but they were delicious.

A Would-Be Sultan Enjoys the Delights of Mohammed's

A Would-Be Sultan Enjoys the Delights of Mohammed’s

As it turned out, we did have the belly dance music, but did not have the actual dancer. Mohammed’s wife (whose name we did not learn – we just called her Mrs. Mohammed among ourselves) advised us that the young lady’s brother had died recently and she was not able to get into the belly dancing mood. The show did not go on, but the wine drinking and the tinny belly dance music did. A bit later, Gary needed to avail himself of the facilities and tried to get up from the cushions without turning over our table. He said he believed these Bedouin furnishings to be designed for people far more dainty than he. He was almost successful, but right at the last critical second, he caught his foot on a tassel and turned a glass of wine over into his own shoe. This was followed by a perilous dive toward the people with the French fries at the next table, but he managed to regain his footing just in time to avoid a face-plant in their entrees. We took this as a sign that it was time to go. But then “Mrs. Mohammed” insisted we have some sort of lemoncello-like after dinner drink so, of course, we could not be discourteous. Instead of climbing back into the nest of cushions,(we were afraid if we ventured in, we would be spending the night there), we sort of stood around the exit and admired the hookah collection while we polished off our nightcaps.

All the wine was from the Golan Heights and was very smooth and went down well with the Arabian feast, and even better, was hangover free. We hope Mohammed can get the wine truck down here to restock his cellar (if his tent had a cellar that is) for tomorrow’s customers. We feel it is probably a good thing that we will not be among those customers tomorrow since we will be heading out early for Jerusalem.

February 28, 2010

Dateline:  Dead Sea, Israel

After another non-carnivore kosher breakfast we drove north to Masada. Bulldozers were working away trying to clear the detritus from the road left by the floods two days earlier and level the washouts. We saw many signs warning of quicksand, admonishing those who felt compelled to hop out of their vehicles and wade into the Dead Sea to reconsider.

The View from the Top of Masada

The View from the Top of Masada

To reach the top of Masada, our options were the cable car or a 60 minute hike on the Snake Trail – the same one used by the donkeys and the people in the olden days. Eilon assured it was named for its many curves, not its reptiles, but we opted for the cable car anyway.  It was a hazy day and quite windy. The top of Masada is 180 feet above sea level. Its base is 1300 feet below so the mountain itself is almost 1,500 feet from top to bottom. It is somewhat flat on top, but it is solid rock

There were fortifications here as early as the first or second century BC.  On top of Masada, there is a synagogue with the stone seats still in place, which is thought to be the oldest in the world. However, most of the ruins visible today are those of a palace fortress built by Herod the Great between 37 and 31 BC.  He had two wives and wisely had two palaces atop Masada, which was sort of his personal country club. In addition to the wives’ palaces, he also built the Hanging Palace as his private residence. It was built on 3 levels, clinging to the side of the cliff, where if you would pardon the pun, he would hang out. The middle terrace had a circular hall used to entertain guests, and the lower terrace housed a bath house.   However the major bathhouse was the Calidarium atop the mountain, adjacent to the palace. The floor was raised on columns (still there today) so that hot air from wood fires below the floor could be circulated underneath to heat the room. Water came from huge cisterns dug into the rock. Seasonal rainfall was collected in a series of canals and cisterns which Herod had built at the foot of the mountain and carried by donkey to the cisterns on top. Herod the Great actually tried to get along with the Jews, adopted many of their customs, and actually tried to please them Jews.  It was his son, Herod Antipas  who was the villain from the time of Jesus when he became king in 4 BC.

A Zealot's View at Masada

A Zealot’s View at Masada

Masada is most famous as the site of a siege at the time of the Jewish Revolt, where the Romans trapped the Zealots atop Masada in 70 AD. The Zealots had retreated there to make a final stand after losing the Temple in Jerusalem to the Romans.  The Israelites had revolted in hopes of gaining independence from the Roman Empire.  Many other Jewish sects favored passivity, believing that if God wanted the Romans out and Israel to be ruled by the Jews, then God would make the arrangements. Of course history tells us that plan didn’t work too well. The Zealots were strictly hands on and chose direct confrontation with the enemy, which is the working model for the State of Israel today.

There were approximately 900 to 1,000 Zealots surrounded by 10,000 to 15,000 Romans. When the Zealots went there, there were still stores of water, grain and dates from Herod’s time. Back then food was provided by farmers sworn to secrecy in oases on the Negev desert and hauled up to Masada. The Romans were led by the emperor’s son Titus (played in the movie by Peter O’Toole) who did not realize how well supplied the Zealots were. The Zealots were led by Eliazan (not sure who played him).

The Zealots did not attack the Romans – not only were they seriously outnumbered, but very few were trained soldiers, plus many of their number were women and children.  The Romans built 8 camps around the base of the mountain, linked by siege walls, including one for women slaves, kept for the personal pleasure of the soldiers. The Romans built the walls to keep slaves and deserters from slipping away into the desert at night, and of course Roman engineering being what it was, the walls are still standing over 2000 years later. And speaking of engineering, it is what actually enabled the Romans to conquer Masada.  They decided to build a ramp to get access to the gates of Masada, 1500 feet above their position. It took them 8 weeks to complete it, using thousands of slaves hauling rock and dirt around the clock.  On top of the ramp, they built a tower, from which they were able to assault the gates with a battering ram. The tower was made of wood and it is long gone, but the ramp is still there too. Historians estimated that the Jews held them off for somewhere between two and three months.

The Romans won, if you call taking a fortress where your enemies have staged a mass suicide winning, that is. The Zealots had watched them build the ramp day by day and knew the end was coming and developed a suicide pact. Each man was to kill his own family and then himself. Eliazan ordered that the stores of grain and dates not be burned. He wanted the Romans to see them to mess with their heads and to deliver the message that the Jews committed suicide rather than be enslaved. They chose to die free.  There were 3 cultures that were the perpetual thorns in the sides of the Romans – the Jews, Germanic tribes and Celts, all of whom contributed largely to the fact that Latin is no longer the mother tongue of anyone.

Eilon says that all of the Israeli elite military units – their equivalent of Delta Force, Green Berets and SEALS – have their graduation ceremonies on Masada where they pledge loyalty to the State of Israel. Their motto and part of their swearing in is “Masada shall not fall again”.

We stopped at the Ein Gedi Spa and the Ahava factory outlet for some cosmetic shopping. The Ein Gedi oasis dates back to Biblical times and is mentioned by name in the Bible in Songs of Songs and in the book of Samuel as a refuge for David when he was fleeing from King Saul. Two gorges converge here and there is a waterfall about an hour’s walk from the road that we did not have time to see. There is also a synagogue nearby dating from the 5th century BC. At the Ahava (which means “love”) outlet we found great mud, great lotions and potions to make us beautiful. The factory is owned by a kibbutz  (like a cooperative) as are many of the surrounding date groves, which is  biggest industry in the Dead Sea area. We went up the road a few miles to the Mineral Spa where Sharon and I had massages and the guys had lunch. Gary asked for a slice of cheese for his chicken sandwich and almost caused an international incident at this, a kosher restaurant.  And speaking of incidents, we saw evidence of a large brush fire 2 years ago, but it was much more dramatic that a tourist trying to break kosher laws. Israeli soldiers were looking for two “potential terrorists” who had set off motion detectors when they crossed into Israeli controlled territory from Palestinian controlled territory. It was at night and the soldiers used flares to try to spot them and accidentally set the brush on fire.  The fugitives were caught, but no word on whether they were Hezbollah or just a couple of guys looking for work – that’s probably “classified”.

A Cave at Qumran

A Cave at Qumran

We next stopped to see the village of Qumran and the Qumran Caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. The first was discovered in 1947 by a young shepherd looking for missing goat. As it turned out, there were several caves and hundreds of scrolls, most of which were sold to antiquities dealers, since in 1947, Israel was somewhat preoccupied with a war with all of the neighbors. Israel has purchased several back and they are housed at the Shrine of the Book museum Jerusalem. The scrolls are copies of the Torah and other religious writings written on parchment, although one scroll is in copper. They were wrapped in linen and placed inside clay jars. One cave alone had 300 scrolls in it. It was found by hole in its ceiling worn by weather, since the entrance was still concealed. The dry desert climate has helped to preserve the scrolls over the centuries.

Qumran was a small village of about 500 people in Biblical times, believed to be populated by ascetic and reclusive Essenes, who unlike the  zealots who believed that it was God’s will that they submit rather than fight. (i.e. if God wanted them saved, they would be).There job was to keep the holy laws of the Torah and keep themselves pure. It is believed that they are responsible for writing and hiding the Dead Sea Scrolls. They were dispersed by the Romans who set up a garrison there and Qumran has been deserted ever since. The scrolls contain Books of the Old Testament and the Apocrypha (14 books of the Bible that are not part of Christian or Jewish versions, although certain Eastern religions believe them to be true), as well as some of the Essenes’ own writing. We walked through the rain, dodging West-Texas sized tumbleweeds to the ruins. There were a number of “mikvehs” which were the baths used in purity rituals. They had two sets of steps that go down to a pool of water that divided the mikveh in half. The idea was that you go down one set of steps dirty and come up the other side cleansed and ready to pray. The practice of keeping the clean apart from the unclean is the foundation of the kosher laws as well. The ruins of the village also included a Scriptorium where the scrolls are believed to have been written, with desks and inkwells still intact.

There is an archaeologist who has conducted many “digs” in the Middle East named Vendyl Jones and he reportedly claims to be the source for the character of Indiana Jones, although producer/director George Lucas says the character’s name came from his dog, Indiana. It is suspected by cynics that Endy Jones may have only taken up the nickname after seeing Indy Jones on the Silver Screen, but it makes a good story anyway. Vendyl, it seems has a lot of wild claims, e.g., that a substance he found was actually Holy Incense and anointing oil from the Second Temple in Jerusalem, whereas, scientists said it’s just dirt. Like Indy Jones, Vendyl Jones has spent a lot of time looking for the lost Ark of the Covenant (the ark being the chest that held the two tablets of the 10 Commandments, which are God’s “covenant” or agreement with man on how he should behave).  One of Vendyl Jones assertions as a result of his research, is that Jews are to follow the laws according to Moses and gentiles are to follow the laws according to Noah.  Noah, according to Vendyl, had 7 laws, similar to the 10 Commandments, except for this one – my personal favorite and one I always try to live by:  Thou shalt not eat the flesh of an animal while it is still alive.  (I am not making this up). Most of Vendyl’s body of work is challenged by scholars, but this reportedly does not bother him in the slightest

We again went by Jericho which was still as hazy and dusty as it was two days earlier so we still didn’t get a good look at it. According to the Book of Joshua, it was here that the first battle of the Israelites against the Canaanites took place and God gave Joshua a recipe for taking the city that goes like this: March your troops around the walls of the city every day for 6 days carrying the Ark (of the Covenant, not the boat along with your shofars (a “trumpet” made from the horns of the ibex). Then on the 7th day, walk around 7 times and have everyone blow their shofars and shout. Joshua followed orders, the walls fell, and they walked right in and destroyed the city. This was to have happened around 1440 BC, although without finding any forensic evidence, archaeologists and scientists think the story may be more parable than history.  In more recent events, relatively speaking, Jericho is also the place where Jesus had dinner with Zacchias as he was passing through Jericho after the Resurrection. You may recall the Bible story that Zacchias, a tax collector in Jericho, had climbed up in a sycamore tree to try to get a better look at Jesus, since he was euphemistically described as “small in stature”.  Jesus saw him and called to him to come down to talk to him. Zacchias later became the 13th disciple known at St. Matthias, and traveled widely spreading the gospel. We also drove past Bethany where Jesus performed the miracle of raising Lazarus from the dead. Jesus spent the night in Bethany before proceeding on his final journey to Jerusalem.

Driving west toward Jerusalem, we saw a number of Bedouin encampments in the ravines and hillsides.  These people are extremely poor with no education and live primarily in the Palestinian controlled West Bank. There were signs of flooding here from the recent rains and we saw acres and acres of olive groves which were cut down with only stumps left. Eilon says the army did it because snipers hid there and shot at cars on Jericho-Jerusalem road, which of course further exacerbates the poverty of the Palestinian farmers since the olives represented their livelihood.

We also saw a number of new settlements coming into Jerusalem (Jewish homes built in Palestinian territory). On this particular day, further construction was on hold, although before we left Israel there was an announcement about a development proceeding in East Jerusalem that made headlines all over the world. It is hard to say how this will ever get sorted out, but I always think that Rodney King  Diplomacy (Rodney King of L.A. Riot fame) might work, i.e.” Can’t we all just get along?” It works for me.

Approaching from the east, we ascended increasingly steeper hills up to city of Jerusalem and were able to see it shining in the distance quite a ways before we reached it. About the same time, we also saw a double rainbow which made it seem even more ethereal. Jerusalem is pronounced in Hebrew as “Yeh ruh sha lime”, with emphasis on “ruh” and “lime” . The name means, ironically enough, the Place of Peace. We all should pray that it becomes that place. We felt it would be a fabulous city and during the next few days, it did not at all disappoint.

The Holy Land Part 3 – Jerusalem

The Holy Land

Part Three:   Jerusalem, Israel

March 1, 2010

Dateline Jerusalem, Israel

Latitude at Jerusalem, 31.47 Degrees North, Longitude 35.12 Degrees East

Yesterday and today are Jewish holidays called Purim, which is a festival to celebrate the story of Queen Esther and how she saved the Jews, who were then part of the Persian Empire. The evil Haman planned to have the Jews annihilated, but Esther “unmasked” him and the King ordered him hanged. It is celebrated along the lines of Mardi Gras with costumes and parties. Eilon, our guide, picked us up early for a busy day of full-contact sight-seeing in Jerusalem (the city’s name means, ironically enough, the City of Peace in Hebrew, but peaceful it is not). Eilon showed up in a cape with a Maltese cross on it, part of his Purim Crusader costume from the night before. We assumed it was for our amusement, but  we suspected that maybe also it was intended as a little poke in the eye to the Ultra Orthodox Jews who are big on vengeance and are still perturbed about the Crusaders invading their turf over a thousand years ago. Eilon tends to be a little feisty and confrontational in a mischievous, good-natured way (in Yiddish it is called chutzpah). He told us he was at a Purim celebration the night before, and he was costumed as a Crusader. His wife dressed as a slave girl held captive by the Crusader, but she had to work today in Tel Aviv, and so he had to unchain her.

The Crusaders were none to popular with the Muslims at the time either since when they weren’t trying to kill the Jews, they were trying to kill the Muslims, and thus the Crusader outfit can antagonize two groups of religious radicals simultaneously. The city is currently divided into East Jerusalem (Palestinian turf) and West Jerusalem (Israeli turf), although the Israelis often try to blend the lines by establishing settlements (their word – the Palestinians call it occupation) in East Jerusalem. These settlements continue to be a big bone of contention, one of many, that keeps things hopping here in the City of Peace. The Old City is divided into quarters – Muslim, Christian, Jewish and Armenian, but in reality there is much blending from quarter to quarter.

A View of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives

A View of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives

Our first stop was in the heart of East Jerusalem on the Mount of Olives, overlooking the Old City and the other six hills surrounding it. From the top of the Mount of Olives you get a quite magical and truly breathtaking view of the city with the limestone walls of the Old City seeming to glow in the early morning light, and rising above the walls, the truly dazzling sight of the golden Dome of the Rock  with sun glinting off the gold dome and casting shadows on the ancient stone facades.

The view to the southwest is the Kidron Valley, stretching between the Mt. of Olives, Mt. Zion and the Old City which was a major Jewish burial ground in the two millennia before the birth of Christ. In  Biblical times it  was referred to at the Valley of Jehoshaphat (which we Americans have morphed into Jehosephat).  Jehoshaphat was the King of Judah in the 9th Century B.C. – no word on where the  exclamation, “Jumpin’ Jehosephat, came from.  The tombs of several prophets from the Old Testament are believed to be here in a series of catacombs, although they are not marked. This was not the custom in ancient times – stacking was more the order of the day.  The

The Mount of Olives as seen from the Old City

The Mount of Olives as seen from the Old City

external tombs came later and many Jews want to be buried there since they believe that if they are close to the Jehoshaphat Valley (where Judgment Day is supposed to take place) it will give them something like “First Dibs” on getting into Heaven. The Mount itself is covered with Jewish tombs in use since around 3,000 B.C., as far as the eye can see, extending to join those in  the Kidron Valley. The tomb of Mary is also believed to be here and this is also a Muslim sacred site since they revere the same prophets as the Jews and Christians. This makes for a continually tense situation since this whole area is in the heart of East Jerusalem, which is Palestinian territory, and which adds another layer of anxiety to an already dicey situation.

And speaking of tense situations, we also could see from our vantage point, a walled compound with a huge Israeli flag which on the surface would seem okay since this is Israel after all. However, this is  in East Jerusalem, the hoped for future capital of Palestine and the flag is one more “in your face” taunt to aggravate the Palestinians. As the story goes, a Jewish guy bought the house (now a fortress) in East Jerusalem and flies this flag, only slightly smaller than the deck of an aircraft carrier, (a small exaggeration, but it is big). The net effect is to send a strong message to the Palestinians which is essentially “Here, let me poke this sharp stick in your eye – just in case you forgot that you hate me”. Eilon tells us that rumor has it that the Palestinian man who sold the land to the Jew was killed by other Palestinians as a warning to others not to sell property in East Jerusalem to Jews.

The Mount of Olives is very significant in the Christian faith since Jesus spent the night here, his last before his arrest, where he delivered the Paternoster, his best known prayer, which has come to be known as The Lord’s Prayer. The Eleona Church (Eleona  means  olive garden in Greek), is also known as the Pater Noster Church) and stands today over the grotto where it is believed that the Pater Noster prayer was offered. And this was by no means the only church. The spaces on The Mount of Olives that are not covered with tombs are in fact covered with churches, most notably for Western world Christians, the Church of the Ascension which is intended to mark the spot where Jesus ascended into heaven forty days after his Resurrection. Of course all the other Christian churches (Greek Orthodox, Russian and Lutheran to name a few) built their own, convinced no doubt that they had the spot nailed down. Multiple buildings in sometimes multiple locales marking the holy places is very common in the Holy Land, but for the faithful, the literal is not as important as the concept.  The predominant color of Jerusalem is shades of tan and beige, a subtle background for the bright gold of the Dome of the Rock and the seven golden onion domes of a Russian Orthodox Church called the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, commissioned in 1185 by Tsar Alexander III.  There are also mosques on the Mount of Olives, including one built over one site believed by some to be the real  place of Christ’s Ascension so that is just another thing for Christians and Muslims to bicker about.

To the southwest we saw Mt. Zion which is believed to be the site of the Last Supper, as well as the Tomb of the Virgin, with Crusader-era steps leading to an underground church where it is believed Virgin Mary was laid to rest by disciples of Jesus. It is marked today by the Church of the Dormition.  As a side note, although these are called mounts, they are really hills by American standards in terms of elevation. Mt. Zion is believed to be the site of the tomb of King David, and though it is outside the city walls today, it is believed to have originally been inside (i.e. they moved the walls, not the mount).  The City of David is believed to be in this same area, rather than beneath the old city. Mt. Zion is also the site of the tomb of Oscar Schindler, who saved over 1,000 Jews from the Nazis (the movie, Schindler’s List tells his story).  He is interred in the Christian Cemetery here The Muslims also revere this site as the burial tomb of David since he is one of the prophets of Islam. On the subject of prophets – both Muslims and Jews believe that Jesus was a prophet for their religions with the messiah to come later. The Muslims believe he arrived in the form of Mohammed in 570 A.D. and the Jews believe he has not arrived yet. The more we learn, the more we are struck by how much the three major religions have in common.

We could see a winding road far below us where the tour buses were crawling relentlessly toward us, seeming to outnumber the cemetery headstones by a significant margin and so we reluctantly left for our next stop. It was time to move on, but we had to leave many things unseen and places unvisited, most notably  the Russian Church of the Ascension, built to commemorate one of the several places where Jesus is believed to have ascended into Heaven the final time after his Crucifixion and subsequent return to earth.  Their claim to fame aside from that is that they have a chapel where the head of John the Baptist was supposedly found – no word on how it got here. Strangely enough, there is also a Mosque of the Ascension, where a mosque replaced a Christian church, built where Jesus’ footprints were said to be preserved in the dust. These and other mysteries will have to be investigated and explored on a future trip since we had to stay ahead of the hordes in those tour buses.

The Garden of Gethsemane

The Garden of Gethsemane

We descended the Mount of Olives to the Garden of Gethsemane which sits at the foot of it. It is really a grove of ancient olive trees, some estimated to be a thousand years old, rather than a traditional garden.  The name Gethsemane means “Olive press”.  Jesus had met here with his disciples on previous visits to Jerusalem in a grotto.  It was here that Jesus, sensing the end was near, came with his most trusted disciples prior to the Last Supper, and then afterward returned to await the fate he knew was his. He was approached by a crowd led by Judas, who kissed Jesus shortly before his arrest by Roman soldiers. The grotto has since become known as The Grotto of Betrayal. The Church of All Nations stands here (also called the Church of Agony), built supposedly over the rock where Jesus prayed the night before he was arrested. It was built with contributions from 12 nations in the Byzantine style in 1924 at a site where several previous churches had stood.

We left the Garden and drove to a spot outside the eastern wall of the old city and were lucky, (or make that blessed, per Eilon), to find a parking space. We, in our Mercedes SUV, beat all the buses lumbering down to the city from the Mount of Olives and got this primo spot. This was one of Eilon’s strengths – knowing when the buses were coming and getting us to the tourist sites (and the bathrooms) ahead of them.  We walked along the outside of the Old City walls where we saw hundreds of ruins of old mikvehs which were the ritual baths where pilgrims were required cleanse themselves before entering the temple. We had seen them in many previous sites, but never on this scale.

The tranquility of the Mount of Olives certainly belied the chaos of the Old City. Vociferous calls to prayer and clanging church bells, mingled with the clamor of vociferous tour guides and vendors was in sharp contrast, to softly murmured prayers on what seemed to be every street corner. And the visual impact was amazing. It was easy to imagine yourself back in Biblical times because there were no automobiles. It seemed quite frenzied, but not in the modern sense –

Bagel Delivery in the Old City

Bagel Delivery in the Old City

this frenzy seemed from an earlier time – sort of a slower paced frenzy. We saw merchants in every niche and doorway, with delivery carts rumbling down ramps over stepped streets. The diversity here is stunning – there is more of everything – more races, more religions, more ethnicity, more cultures in more odd clothing, more radicalism. And speaking of radicalism, was it our imagination or were some of these pedestrians a little wild-eyed?  In the midst of all this – Jerusalem can give the distinct impression of being on a movie set where some of the extras are slightly deranged. It is unconventional – it is alive – it is fascinating.

We had entered the Old City and the Jewish Quarter through the Dung Gate, which prior to 1948 was doorway size, but it was later enlarged to allow cars to enter. The Dung Gate would seem to be an ignominious route for us tourists to enter such a glorious city, but the Muslims walled up the fancier gate to access the Jewish quarter called the Golden Gate, which was the way Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey just before his arrest. The Golden Gate is also the portal through which the Jews believe their messiah will enter the city when he finally comes. It is suspected by some that the Muslims walled up the gate and built a cemetery around it to thwart the coming of the Jewish messiah; however,  for a messiah, this would probably be no obstacle. Nevertheless, it remains walled up, and so for us, the Dung Gate it was.

The most coveted turf in the city is what the Jews refer to as the Temple Mount which was the site of the First and Second Temples. The original, the First Temple, was built by King Solomon and destroyed by invading Babylonians in 587 BC. The Mount was created by filling in a valley between two hills to elevate the structure.  It was originally built to hold the Ark of the Covenant (the two stone tablets with the Ten Commandments on them – which have long since

Model of Jerusalem at the time of the Second Temple

Model of Jerusalem at the time of the Second Temple

disappeared and have been sought by Indiana Jones among others). The Second Temple was built in 515 B.C. and later and expanded by Herod the Great. It was destroyed by the Romans after the Jewish Revolt in 66 AD and thus, the temple in Jesus’ time would have been the Second Temple. It was there that he wandered off from his parents as a 12 year old during the festival of Chanuka and was later found sitting with the temple sages who were admiring him for his wisdom. This was when Jesus saw a woman who was to be stoned for adultery and he uttered the words, (paraphrased here), about those without sin should cast the first stone. The Muslims who control this area today call it Haram esh-Sharif which means “the noble sanctuary” in Arabic.

On Jesus’ final visit to the Temple Mount, he again entered the city through the Golden Gate and confronted the Pharisees in an attempt to purify the temple. He became angry and overturned the tables of the money changers and as he left, and he prophesied the destruction of the temple because it had become corrupt. I.E., the house of prayer had become a “den of thieves” and a “house of mercenaries”.  A note on the money changers:  All Jews were forced to pay a tax to the temple, however they only had Greek or Roman coins and the word the holy men running the temple had was that God only wanted shekels (1/2 shekel per person was the going rate.)  Plus the coins had likenesses of humans on them and thus were further taboo. It is an interesting belief (i.e. man should not create likenesses of anything made by God) held by Ultra Orthodox Jews still today and it is strangely enough shared by Muslims. So money had to be changed and fees charged – it sounds familiar.

Another footnote from Biblical times is that they also sacrificed animals at the Temple, a practice that seems to be a multi-cultural, multi religious phenomenon. You have to wonder who came up with the idea. I’m thinking that maybe it was a quick thinking, fast-talking human scheduled to be sacrificed who tells priest  that God spoke to him and indicated would much prefer, say a nice sheep or goat.  And this could not be just any stray sheep or goat. It had to be sparkling clean so you can’t bring one from home. People actually bought a freshly laundered animal at the Temple to offer for sacrifice so that was probably something of a racket too.

In addition to buying an animal to sacrifice, a temple tax had to be paid whether you went to the temple or not and your goods could be seized if you did not pay it. And then there was the mikvah (ritual bath), no word on whether the tax covered that.

In light of all this money changing hands just to worship God, it is not surprising that the Bible tells us that Jesus felt that the worship of God had become far too mercenary. It makes you wonder what he would say about the Hour of Power, the Crystal Cathedral and all those charter jets today’s millionaire-ministers use. And what would Jesus think about churches with Starbucks and ATM’s in the church.  Would he turn over the espresso machine and wreck the ATM’s? We found that Christian churches in Jerusalem are very plain it seems and fittingly so. They serve to remind us of the humble origins and indeed the humble life of Jesus, much better than the churches and cathedrals of today’s televangelists in their mega-churches, and their bi-coastal congregations contributing their mega-bucks.

The Western Wall

The Western Wall

The Western Wall was our first stop inside the city. All that remains accessible to the public of the Second Temple is part of a single wall that once surrounded the Temple Mount. The Jews picked this spot for the temple because a prominent rock was supposed to be where Abraham offered to sacrifice his son to demonstrate his obedience to and his love for God. This section of wall is known as the Western Wall – a.k.a. Wailing Wall (or Ha-Kotel in Hebrew) and is the place where Jews go to pray and lament (thus the “wailing” moniker) the loss of the Temple. This wall is actually a small part of a retaining wall for the Mount itself, built by Herod the Great when he rebuilt and expanded the First Temple. It serves as an open air synagogue and a venue for services, festivals and special rites. There are separate entrances for men and women and separate sections of the wall for prayers for men and women. Plastic chairs are scattered around both sides for those who plan a lengthy prayer session.  There are many more chairs on the women’s side (which is much smaller than men’s side) and many were positioned  against the dividing wall so curious females can peer over to see what the men folk are up to. The men were apparently not equally curious. Yes, I peeked into the men’s side and really the men are more interestingly costumed.

The Shofar Being Blown in Celebrating a Bar Mitzvah

The Shofar Being Blown in Celebrating a Bar Mitzvah

There were two types of activity. There were the serious prayers of the devout, their lips moving to a rocking motion of the upper body, reciting typically the Book of Lamentations and liturgical dirges called kinot. While at the wall we also saw a Bar Mitzvah procession – a white canopy held aloft, with the honoree underneath, blushing and seeming somewhat abashed at all the fanfare. Ahead of him, two men cleared the way with shofars blowing ( a shofar is a horn made from the horn of a ram, curved like the one in the Dodge truck logo), and everyone was chanting and singing. It was really quite a “moment” when we considered how many thousands of years this tradition has been repeated at this special place.

The Devout at Prayer in their Chocolate Cake Hats

The Devout at Prayer in their Chocolate Cake Hats

The other action at the Western Wall is the tourists gawking at the ultra orthodox Jews in the solid black Abe Lincoln looking suits and ear curls , snapping photos and meandering up to the wall trying to figure out what all the fuss is about.  The hats varied widely among various sects, with the most astonishing being the ones Eilon termed the chocolate cake. It was indeed shaped like an oversized layer cake and made from dark animal fur of some sort. The wall is constructed of huge limestone blocks, sprigged here and there with wild greenery of some sort . In addition to verbal prayers, the worshipers can write prayers or petitions to God on tiny scraps of paper and stuff them into the cracks in the wall’s mortared stones. I wondered if it is perhaps a memo reiterating what the verbal prayer was in case it needed reiterating. I personally believe God would hear and remember it the first time, but who am I to question tradition? Above the wall was a walkway looking a little rickety and quite the afterthought, which allowed access to the Temple Mount. In the days of the Second Temple, access to the mount was via several flights of stone stairs, but all that remains of that today is the walled up arches visible high up on the wall.

Of course, the Temple Mount is also holy to Muslims since they believe Mohammed took his Night Journey to Heaven from the Rock on this spot. The Night Journey was a visit to Heaven by Mohammed who then returned to earth. Muslims currently control the real estate and have both the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa mosque on the site, although it is policed by Jewish and Muslim police (from Jordan – Palestinians were considered too dicey) to keep order  and  each is tasked with the responsibility  to reign in their own radicals. The brouhaha du jour while we were there occurred when Jewish radicals decided to flaunt the Muslim rule that no other religions can be practiced on the site. Ultra Orthodox Jewish “holy men” smuggled in prayer books and commenced to pray in a most conspicuous manner and consequently local Muslims pelted them with rocks. You have to wonder why, out of the bazillion rocky outcroppings in this city, did the Jews and Muslims have to pick the exact same rock? What are the chances they got the right rock anyway? Anyway, back to the sightseeing.

From the wall we proceeded to a fairly recently excavated tunnel unearthed by archaeologists which runs parallel to the remaining portion of the Western Wall. The tunnel exposes small sections that are now below ground  and have been for centuries. The floor of the tunnel is a stone street built in the time of Herod the Great. You can see the arches employed to elevate the mount, to preserve the springs,  to create cisterns below, (which had been carved out of solid rock), and to prevent erosion from above which was essentially land fill.

We emerged from the tunnel into the Muslim Quarter, the largest and most densely populated of the quarters. Our goal was to walk the Via Dolorosa, which means the Way of Sorrows in Italian. Its path is intended to trace the last steps of Jesus from the point of his conviction to his tomb from the east side to the west side of the quarter, where the events known as the Passion of Christ took place. The route has changed a bit from time to time over the centuries, as business needs and religious beliefs of those in power dictated. It is an approximation, versus the exact step by step, but it looks much as it did in the time of Christ – just the vendor’s wares have changed. This route is what tradition has established, although many scholars argue that it is likely another route was taken.

The Praetorium - the First Station of the Cross

The Praetorium – the First Station of the Cross

Our first stop was The First Station where Jesus was condemned to death, just a few steps from the tunnel exit and, in Jesus’ time, what was the lower retaining wall of the Temple Mount.   In 33 AD, the time of his arrest, the building here was a Roman Praetorium , the headquarters of the Roman military governor,  who was at this time Pontius Pilate. Today the building houses a Muslim school called Omariye College. It is in the courtyard of this college where every Friday, a group of Franciscan monks start the devotion to the Way of the Cross and follow it to the hill of Calvary (also called Golgotha) where the crucifixion took place.

The Second Station was only a few yards from the first, and is the place where Jesus was flogged and forced to wear a crown of thorns of acacia branches as he took up the cross. In Jesus’ time this took place on the area paved with stones called the Lithostrotos.  Today there is a Franciscan  Monastery of the Flagellation and Chapel of the Condemnation. Above the street there is an arch called the Ecce Homo Arch where, supposedly Pontius Pilate watched the events and was quoted as saying as he presented the tortured Jesus to the crowd, “Behold the Man” (the translation in Latin is “Ecce Homo”) . However,  scholars believe the arch was built by Hadrian in the Second Century AD, and so  Pontius Pilate must have stood elsewhere to utter his insult.

The Third Station is located where the street takes a 90 degree turn and becomes El Wad road, one of the main streets of the Muslim Quarter. At this corner, it is believed that Jesus fell beneath the weight of the cross for the first time. There is a small Polish chapel here today with a carved relief above the entrance showing Jesus falling under the cross.

The 4th Station of the Cross on the Via Dolorosa

The 4th Station of the Cross on the Via Dolorosa

The Fourth Station is only a few steps from the Third. This is believed to be the spot where Jesus met his mother, Mary, who had stood by the roadside waiting for him to pass.  There is an Armenian Catholic church here built on the ruins of an earlier church. A sculpture above the door is of Mary comforting Jesus. The Church is called our Lady of the Spasm, but  I suspect something may be lost in translation since it was likely intended to portray more of an emotional event than a neurological one.

The Fifth Station is situated at the foot of a long steep ascent to the Hill of Golgotha where the crucifixion was to take place.  At this point another Jew, a passer-by named Simon of Cyrene, was  ordered to help Jesus with the Cross as he began the ascent of the hill. There is a marker here in the form of a Franciscan oratory (a little prayer nook of sorts). To the right of the oratory is a handprint in the stone of the wall which is said to mark the place where Jesus leaned against the wall and left a bloody print. Over the centuries, the impression has deepened in the stone as it is worn down from millions of pilgrims touching their hands to it.

A Feast for Lunch in the Muslim Quarte

A Feast for Lunch in the Muslim Quarte

Right across  El Wad Road from the Fifth station is the Restaurant Abu Shukri , an Arabic hole  in the wall sort of place with the best hummus in the world, where we stopped for lunch and it was outstanding.   We ate mass quantities of the famous hummus, plus pita, falafel, tahini and goat cheeses. Outside Arab markets still line the streets, and aside from the conspicuous wiring for electricity and signs in English and Arabic, we envisioned  it to be much like it was  two thousand years ago. The merchandise is probably different too come to think of it with the big sellers being crosses and water pipes – but you get the idea. There are countless smaller streets and alleyways leading off of El Wad Road which look intriguing and are perfectly safe to explore, but we were getting pressed for time if we were to complete our journey this afternoon and had to leave those for another day. There is a section of El Wad that has been excavated to reveal the Roman Road below that was there in Jesus’ time, but the remainder of the road has been paved over with smaller stones over the centuries.

We climbed up a smaller street to the Sixth Station at the Chapel of St. Veronica, which marks the place  where a woman named Veronica encountered Jesus.  Veronica is not her Hebrew name but rather is the name the Roman Catholics use for her (later she became St. Veronica).  She wiped away the blood and sweat from Jesus’ face. This story is not recorded in the gospels, but is in other records and is the subject of classical masterpieces of religious paintings. The site is also marked today by the Convent of the Little Sisters of Jesus, said to be built upon the ruins of a monastery from 546 A.D. which was supposedly built on the site of Veronica’s house.

The Seventh Station is at the site of a gate to the city that existed at the time where there was a judgment notice posted announcing Jesus’ crucifixion. It was here that he fell for the second time.  This site is marked by a Franciscan chapel which houses large Roman column that had stood there. The Christian name for this site is Judgment Gate.

The Ascent to Golgotha on the Via Dolorosa

The Ascent to Golgotha on the Via Dolorosa

To reach the Eighth station we crossed into the Christian Quarter and had to make detours through several narrow streets  and souks (markets) offering a variety of fresh produce and an array of sweets, since buildings erected over the centuries obstructed the old route. This site is believed to be the place where Jesus consoled the grieving women of Jerusalem as described in Luke 23:28. This site is marked by a Latin cross on the wall of a Greek orthodox monastery.

The Ninth Station is the place where Jesus fell for the third time, and it is marked by a Roman column at the entrance to a Coptic Ethiopian monastery. From there you can see the apse and roof of the Holy Sepulchre Basilica marking the site of the Crucifixion, and the Hill of Golgotha which was outside the city walls at that time. The name in Hebrew means “The Place of the Skull”, a fitting name since many executions had taken place there.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre

The Tenth to Fourteenth stations are all inside of the Basilica of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and are very close together. Built around the Basilica are churches from several Christian faiths – Coptic, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Greek Orthodox – on what is believed to be the actual site – more or less. The first church was built by Constantine between 326 and 335 A.D. and suffered from earthquakes and conquests. Several subsequent churches were all built in the vicinity with each church convinced it had THE SPOT”. The current version of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built by Crusaders from 1114 to 1170 and is the original, though it has been repaired many times.  The Church was built by extensive excavating around the tomb and exposing the bedrock of the hill in order to accommodate its size.

Surrounding the Basilica is a collection of smaller churches and hospices –  creating a collision of the faiths in both the spiritual and the commercial endeavors. The power struggles for control of this sacred place between the various Christian faiths (17 are represented in Jerusalem) are somewhat circumvented by an agreement called the Status Quo, an Ottoman law which divides custody of the church between Armenian, Greek, Coptic, Roman Catholic, Ethiopian and Syrian Christians.  The church is unlocked daily by a neutral party. There are two Muslim families, the same families for several generations, who are responsible for the keys. This solution works since this not a holy Muslim site and thus they make neutral gatekeepers. This practice was instituted by Saladin after he conquered the Crusaders. The various religions also take turns at the holy places, a practice rigidly observed and self-enforced. If you need to wind up your prayers at Noon, at 12:01 you better have said Amen and be on your way out of the tomb – or else!

There is a chapel at the Tenth Station called the Chapel of Stripping of Clothes which is up a short flight of stairs. It is at this point that Jesus was stripped of his clothes and there is a large oil painting depicting the event. It is very dark inside the basilica with vision further obstructed by Greek Orthodox priests coming though waving their incense burners. Eilon advised us to step lively to get out of their way if we see them since they do not step aside or acknowledge the mere humans in their path. As the Blues Brothers would say, “they are on a mission from God” – literally.

The eleventh Station marks the spot where Jesus was nailed to the cross. There is a Latin shrine decorated with mosaics to commemorate the event.  The cross was erected along with those of two thieves who were also being executed. Crucifixions were common and this site was used frequently as a warning to all regarding the price for displeasing Roman rulers since Golgotha was on a frequently travelled road at the western entrance to Jerusalem

The Altar at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre above the Rock of Golgothat

The Altar at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre above the Rock of Calvary

The Twelfth Station is the Rock of Calvary (the Latin name for Golgotha and which also is more phonetically pleasing for those church hymn lyrics – and besides nothing seems to rhyme with Golgotha). This is where it is believed that Jesus died on the cross, or he “gave up his spirit” as written in Matthew 27:50. This spot is at the heart of a Greek Orthodox Church where an elaborate altar with gold and silver covering just about every available surface. But perhaps the most striking art is a carved wooden statue of Mary, symbolizing the grief of all mothers who love their children. We could see the actual rock of Golgotha (this is the bedrock exposed from the Crusader era excavation) through glass. It can also be touched if the pilgrim is willing and able to do some serious squatting. Beneath the altar is bedrock where the cross stood, cracked so it is said by an earthquake that occurred the day Jesus died. The more nimble tourists can crawl under the altar (yes it is hugely undignified) and stick their hands (if they fit – Gary’s did not) into a hole in the floor and reach down about 12 inches to touch the rock (provided your forearm is small enough). I did touch the rock, but I have to report the experience felt much more like a Blarney Stone than a spiritual event.

The Stone of Unction - 13th Station of the Cross

The Stone of Unction – 13th Station of the Cross

After Jesus died, Joseph of Arimathea asked the Romans for his body to prepare it for burial as described in Luke 25:53. The Thirteenth Station is the place where Jesus’ body was placed on a large stone where he was washed by women who were his followers and prepared for burial. The Stone of the Anointment marks the spot. It is a marble slab covering what is thought to be the original stone itself, which is also called the Stone of Unction.

The Fourteenth and final Station is the tomb where Jesus was buried which had been hewn out of rock by Joseph of Arimathea, who wrapped Jesus in a linen cloth, placed his body in the tomb and rolled a stone over the entrance. This site is housed in its own chapel which was erected by the Crusaders on foundations of an earlier chapel dating back to the Byzantines during the reign of Constantine. Since this was much closer to the time Crucifixion, this site is considered more likely to be THE place than some of the others on the Via Dolorosa. It is a very small area – only 4 people at a time can stand in it and we were allowed just enough time to light a candle, say a really short prayer and then we had to move on . The Greek Orthodox priests (minus the incense burners) are the enforcers. As we left the Greek Orthodox Church we exited through the Franciscan Chapel where there is a beautiful relief of Christ rising from the tomb in the Basilica of the Resurrection. It was quite uplifting after all of the grimness of the various memorials to so much sorrow, but I guess they don’t call it the Way of Sorrows for nothing.

The Cardo

The Cardo

From the Church of the Holy Sepulchre we entered the Jewish Quarter again, this time walking along the Cardo, which was once a colonnaded street of shops and  the main street of Byzantine Jerusalem, although  the original Cardo goes back to Roman times. A portion of it has been excavated so it is lower than the street and it seems to have more upscale souvenirs (more local artisans, fewer Chinese labels) and we bought a few things for our library at home. One prominent feature of the Old City not advertised in the brochures was the abundance of military personnel, heavily armed military personnel at that, with more weapons on display than a redneck gun show. We found it a bit disconcerting to see so many hormonal teens (boys and girls both) sporting  that unlikely combination of Uzis and zits. At one spot we observed a number of them chattering away like school kids (which they probably were just the previous month), with rifles slung over one shoulder and a back pack over the other. We know they are trained, but still wonder about the level of maturity and good judgment available to them at that tender age. It can make the average tourist a little skittish, maybe checking out his reflection in the shop windows to see if there is any way he could be mistaken for a terrorist.

Zion Gate

Zion Gate

We exited the old City through the Zion Gate and walked up a gentle slope to Mt. Zion, just outside the city. This hill, whether we stood on the exact spot or not, has a tremendous amount of Biblical history associated with it. We made a brief stop at the Church of the Dormition, with its dome, large bell tower and adjacent abbey.  The church is built on top of the rock where it is believed that Virgin Mary began her eternal sleep (a.k.a .”dormition”, or “The Big Sleep”.) We noted that the big religious events always  seem to have transpired on rocks here, but that is probably because that is what is most abundant and enduring. Although many believe that Mary spent her final days here, Ephesus makes that same claim, as do other historical places.

The Crusaders built a church here on Mt. Zion on the ruins of an earlier church to commemorate Mary’s death, as well as to mark the site of the Last Supper which was actually a Passover meal, the day before Jesus was arrested. Passover is still celebrated to commemorate the freedom of Jewish people from bondage in Egypt and a “seder”  (the feast of the Liberation) is held to commemorate the event.  Consequently, Egyptians became symbolic of all oppressors of Jews over the centuries. Seder always ends with the phrase, “next year in Jerusalem” for exiles and those dispersed around the world. The Haggadah, a special book of prayers, songs and stories with parts written over 3,000 years ago, is read at the feast by the head of the household, typically oldest male present.

It is believed that in Jesus’ time on this site there was a house with an upper floor where the Last Supper took place, and thus the name, the Upper Room. It’s Latin name is the Coenaculum (which translates as “the place of the latest meal”) and it is also called the Hall of the Last Supper.  It is housed in a small section of the Crusader Church.  It was at the Last Supper that the rite of the Eucharist (Communion) was established. Not only was this the site of the Last Supper, but per the scriptures, Jesus also appeared to his disciples as a pillar of fire (Acts 2:1-4)  in this same room after the Resurrection (Pentecost). At that point, the Apostles miraculously began speaking many languages in order to be able spread the gospel. Archaeologists agree that ruins found below the Crusader Church do indeed date back to the time of Jesus. There were several different Crusades over several centuries launched to conquer the Holy Land, including the Knights Templar  (of The DaVinci Code fame) and the Knights Hospitaliers whose actual mission was to assist sick and injured pilgrims in the Holy Land (giving us the word “hospital”). When the Knights Hospitaliers were driven out of the Holy Land, they took refuge in Malta and became known as the Knights of Malta.

As if that is not enough history,   David’s tomb (King David that is) is believed to be directly below the Coenaculum. There is a very striking sculpture of King David erected in a courtyard to more or less, mark the spot, but unfortunately, the Orthodox Jews and the Radical Muslims (strange bedfellows indeed), periodically deface the statue with spray paint since neither group believe that “graven images” or likenesses of any of God’s creations should ever be displayed. Consequently these “religious hooligans” spray paint the face of an otherwise very excellent sculpture – just doing God’s work, I suppose.

Our brains saturated, we trudged back to our vehicle totally exhausted both mentally and physically – what a day. Our heads were full of religion, politics and history and our feet were tired and sore. We had an early dinner and went to bed early to rest up for the next day’s rigorous touring.

March 2, 2010

Dateline: Bethlehem, Israel

Today after we hit the shekel machine (ATM), which seems to be a daily occurrence now, we drove south of Jerusalem to Bethlehem, a distance of about 6 miles. Jerusalem sits on 7 hills and the countryside is green and fertile on the western side and brown and dusty on the eastern side. Bethlehem is on the dusty side, on edge of the Judean desert, but it is still somewhat fertile with terraced land with walls dating back over 2000 years. The primary crop is olive trees.  Bethlehem (they pronounce it Bet-lay-him with the accent on “lay”) actually predates Jerusalem, since it is referenced as the city where the future King David was named king.  The town flourished until Crusader times and then languished until 1948 when Palestinians settled here after being driven from their homes in other parts of Israel by the Jewish armies. It more or less still languishes with tourism its only business of any size.

To get into Bethlehem, we had to go through what they term Checkpoint Charlie to enter Palestinian controlled territory, (to use the term loosely). Every checkpoint in Israel is called a Checkpoint Charlie – it seems to have become part of the lexicon, but no one seems to pick up on the irony of a name from the Berlin Wall. Eilon told us the roads were built with funds from the US. I’m not sure why that is, but it was American foreign aid of some sort.

The Palestinians “control” this area mostly in name only and they govern at the pleasure of the Israelis. Their economy, livelihoods and day-to-day lives are actually controlled by the Israelis. For example, many Palestinians live in Bethlehem and work in Jerusalem. However if the border is closed for whatever reason, they can’t get to their jobs and they lose pay and/or employment. The Palestinian controlled areas are Gaza – a strip of desert on the Mediterranean and the West Bank (meaning the West Bank of the Jordan River, although these areas are more islands within the Israeli territory than a contiguous mass) In Biblical times this area was called Samaria (home of the Good Samaritan). Today the Jews call the West Bank territory “liberated” and the Palestinians call it “occupied” – a fairly substantial difference of opinion.

The Wall to separate Palestinian lands from Israel

The Wall to separate Palestinian lands from Israel

The Israelis have built a 23 foot high wall around the West Bank areas to attempt to control of the comings and goings of the Palestinians. This is highly criticized by some, but the Israelis feel it is essential for their security since from time to time, various Palestinian militant groups (mostly Hamas) declare an intifada, meaning it is open season for terrorist activity.  The word translates as “the shaking off”, as if “shaking off” an oppressor. Ann intifada is usually declared in the wake of some sort of transgression (real or perceived) by the Israelis and is followed by reprisals by Israeli troops, closing borders and perhaps a mortar attack or two on a village. As to the rightness or “wrongness” of either party, it can be argued either way depending on who you think started it way back when, sort of like the Hatfields and McCoys. You would think but sharing the land would be a great idea, but that seems to out of the question from a political perspective.  Actually it appears to us outsiders that the majority of Jews and Palestinians do get along, but the radicals on both side just can’t seem to let those festering animosities go – it’s a proud tradition, don’t you know.

The most recent intifada was in 2000 when Ariel Sharon decided to go to the Temple Mount and pray. This got the Muslims stirred up because this is their sacred ground and the next thing you know, suicide bombers were deployed, followed by artillery, and so on and so forth. Tour operators always caution that visits to Bethlehem and anywhere in Palestinian territory are always conditional, with the words “political situation permitting” liberally  applied in their itineraries and so we were fortunate that things were calm today.

Eilon is not allowed to conduct tours in the West Bank area and so we had to have our own Palestinian guide or go with a large bus group accompanied by a Palestinian guide. Our tour operator had planned on our joining a larger bus tour, but we opted for an individual guide which actually turned out to be a lot more of a cloak and dagger operation than we would have thought. We felt very intrepid since we were on the lam from our tour operator’s schedule for us as soon as we set out for the West Bank, going “off the reservation” , so to speak.  We met our Palestinian contact at a hotel in the rural outskirts of Bethlehem, so rural  in fact, the odor in the air would give you the impression that some sort of manger was going to be really close by.

Our contact took us in his taxi to downtown Bethlehem to meet, Nidal, our guide. Nidal is a Palestinian Muslim, educated in Christian schools in Bethlehem.  He said the school was the best in the area and his father could afford it and so he went. He is very articulate, as well as very well educated, and he probably knows far more about Christianity than most Christians. Bethlehem does have a large contingent of Christian Palestinians as well as Muslims and for the most part they all get along and have for centuries. Nidal actually does not charge for his tour – all he asked is that we visit a shop that sponsors him, no purchase required.

Manger Square Bethlehem

Manger Square Bethlehem

We observed on our ride into town that it was obviously poor, very third world and very far removed from the Nativity scenes on the lawns of the churches back home. However, our impressions changed rather dramatically once we reached Manger Square and walked to the Church of the Nativity. There were throngs of tourists, many pilgrims from foreign countries, some aggressive Russians and some really pushy Chinese, but Nidal managed to direct traffic sufficiently well for us to enter the church. He told us that many of the people around us were on a bargain tour from Sharm-el-Sheik, Egypt. They drive all night on a bus (think school bus,not Greyhound), spend an hour in Bethlehem, an hour in Jerusalem and drive back. So it was quite understandable if they were a bit cranky. The throngs Nidal told us are nowhere near the volume of the days prior to the 2000 Intifada. Even though 10 years have gone by, many tourists are still leery of the violence, not just here, but throughout the Holy Land. Of course if you live in any major city in the U.S., violence is a daily occurrence, but somehow it always seems more ominous in foreign lands.

The Church of the Nativity, a Greek Orthodox Church, was built in the 4th Century A.D. on the spot where Jesus was believed to be born. The church was really multiple churches in that 3 Christian religions– Armenian, Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox – share it. The church is built of golden brown stones ,  with a bell tower, and like so many others we have seen is very unassuming. We were surprised to find the entrance to it the size of a closet door. You could

The Door of Humility at the Church of the Nativity

The Door of Humility at the Church of the Nativity

still see the outline of a grander door, but back in the olden days they had the Ottomans and other rude people riding their horses into the church and making off with loot- silver candelabra, religious relics, gold crosses with precious stones, etc.  The more brazen looters even brought wagons inside to haul off the really big stuff like the marble altars.  The doorway is called the Door of Humility (i.e. you have to stoop to enter) which was probably named by someone looking on the bright side of the looting and pillaging.

The Church of the Nativity sits atop the site of the manger itself (called the Grotto of the Nativity) and to reach it, we had to wind our way through dark grim aisles (House of Usher sort of stuff), heavy chandeliers, ugly Crusader style art – you know the kind where all the angels and saints have those halos that look like gold plates behind their heads. There were also heavy wood carvings and distant ornate alters in silver and gold, gleaming in the dim light.  The Grotto of the Nativity, was documented in 160 A.D. (relatively close to the time Jesus was born) as the birth place of Jesus, so it is more likely that they have the place right than some of the other religious sites. The church once had mosaics on the floors and walls, but only a few remain. There are still 44 Columns of pink marble also painted in the Crusader style with the gold dinner plate halos.  They are very dark paintings which have darkened further with age and have not been restored and there is practically no light. It was hard to get that Christmas spirit here, but we dutifully pressed on.

The Grotto of the Nativity

The Grotto of the Nativity

Carried along by the throngs, we descended a short flight of steps to reach the Grotto of the Nativity. Nidal explained that the manger was probably in a cave since that is where animals were commonly kept at that time. At the entrance, everyone had to squeeze through a small door and again Nidal was invaluable in keeping the Chinese and Russian hordes at bay so we could get in. There was a mass being said in a foreign language – an Eastern European one, so we thought – and we listened for a few moments, and then two at a time we were allowed into an antechamber where there was a silver star set into the marble in the floor which was said to be the where the manger had been and the place of Jesus’ birth. The crusaders were said to have taken the original manger, but they showed up several hundred years after the fact so who knows.

Nidal retold us the familiar story of Joseph and Mary, who traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem to register for the census and pay taxes. The law as decreed by Emperor Augustus was that taxes were to be paid at the place where the head of the house was born, and for Joseph it was

Inside St. Catherine's Church - Bethlehem

Inside St. Catherine’s Church – Bethlehem

Bethlehem, and thus the long journey. While the light was dim, here in the grotto, it felt much more spiritual than the grim recesses of the church above. As we exited, however, we had a very special experience – one of the goose-bump-raising variety. Connected to the Church of the Nativity is the Roman Catholic St. Catherine’s Church, built in the soaring European cathedral style with much more light and beautiful architecture. Our entrance to St. Catherine’s was perfectly timed as we were treated to the delightful singing of “Silent Night” (in English even) during the mass. We agreed this was the most spiritual place we had been in the Holy Land, and of course, the music really made the visit special. St Catherine’s Church was built in the 1880’s on the ruins of a Franciscan monastery (12th Century)which was built on a previous monastery associated with St. Jerome (5th Century) – thus the better lighting and overall ambiance. From there we visited several other grottoes, i.e. the Grottoes of the Holy Innocents, St. Joseph and St. Jerome. Grottoes, in addition to serving as stables, were commonly used as houses and burial sites in Biblical times. St. Jerome was known for translating various Bible writings into a single book in a common language and today his version is known as the Vulgate. He supposedly wrote, studied and died here next to the Grotto of the Nativity.

There are several other things to see in Bethlehem including many churches. I was intrigued by the name Milky Grotto Church, where supposedly Mary was nursing Baby Jesus and a few drops of milk dripped on a rock and turned it white. The white rock is said to deliver miraculous healing, but we were on a mission and off the reservation, so we had no time to try out cures for our tired feet. There is another church of note called the Shepherd’s Field Church. Both a Franciscan and a Greek Orthodox Church stand here to commemorate the announcement to the shepherds regarding Jesus’ birth.  Also tradition says the three shepherds were buried here but the shepherds would have been long gone before the churches were built so that may be suspect, unless the church was built on top of an older church, as is usually the case here.

Our last stop was at the shop which sponsored our tour. It was really delightful with quality merchandise locally made. There was a lot of carved olive wood, and silver jewelry and we made a few purchases.  The shopkeeper, a very gracious host and a charming man to boot, served us tea as we made our selections.

From Bethlehem and the West Bank, we drove to an area in West Jerusalem called Kiryat Ben Gurion that is in sharp contrast to the Old City, filled with modern buildings that would easily fit on a Star Wars movie set. It is the site of the majority of Israeli federal government buildings, museums and memorials. The most traditional building in terms of architecture was the Knesset, (translation is “Assembly”) which is the Israeli Parliament.   It is a columned square building sitting on a hill, along the lines of the Parthenon. There is a sculpted menorah (a seven branched candelabrum) which is the symbol of the State of Israel and an eternal flame to commemorate victims of the Holocaust.

Communities only started springing up outside the Old City as recently as the 1860’s. The first was built by a British Jewish philanthropist named Sir Moses Montefiore, who was appalled at the slums full of people jammed together inside the walls and so he built 16 apartments called Mishkenot Shaananim – the (The pronunciation of this requires stuffing half a dozen olives in your mouth – I cannot reproduce it here with mere words).  The translation is Dwellings of Tranquility. He also built Greek style windmills, (one of which is still standing) with the idea that the settlement could be self sufficient and grind their own grain. He did make a small miscalculation – there is rarely enough wind to turn the windmill (although these last few days we have been in Israel is a notable exception). At first people were afraid to live outside the walls due to bandits, but Sir Moses offered free rent and by 1900 a whole community sprang up called Yemin Moshe and development took off from there. Today the original 16 apartments are guesthouses for artists and writers and there are suburbs ringing the city in all directions.  The suburbs are an eclectic mix of  Florentine style towers, Russian domes, and Oriental temples, to name a few, as emigrants from other countries imported their own styles. Also there were many Jewish community projects intended to cater to the pilgrims to the Holy Land.

We made a brief visit to the Israel Museum to see the original Dead Sea Scrolls which are housed in a special building called the Shrine of the Book. It has a white dome on top – shaped sort of like a flattened Hershey’s kiss with a continuous stream of water running over it. The hall itself is underground. The dome is actually intended to represent the shape of the lids to the jars where the scrolls were stored in the caves at Qumran. Inside the passageways are dimly lit, enhancing the cave -like experience. Over 800 scrolls were found, although some are only fragments and many are in private collections. They cover not only Biblical scriptures, but also descriptions of daily life, history, etc.  They were written between the 3rd Century B.C. and First Century A.D. Most are on sheepskin parchment which has been stitched together.   The Great Isaiah Scroll, written around 100 BC, is the largest and best preserved and  is 23 feet long when unrolled.

The Countryside Around Yad Vashem

The Countryside Around Yad Vashem

Our last stop of the day was the Yad Vashem Museum (meaning “a name and a place”) which is an archive, museum and monument to the estimated 6 million victims who died in the Holocaust. Eilon pointed out that Israel has just this year reached the milestone of 6 million Jews living in Israel.  The museum is one long corridor carved into the hillside with 10 different halls, each one dedicated to a chapter of the Holocaust.  Over 2,500 personal items have been donated. The exhibits are set up to detail the lives and the personal journey of specific individual individuals from 1933 to 1945 and the horror of the death camps. Adjacent to the museum is the Hall of Remembrance which is tomb-like chamber that bears the names of 21 of the main Nazi death camps in Europe on flat black basalt slabs. At the center of the chamber is a casket of ashes recovered from the cremation chambers. There is also the Hall of Names which has recorded information on all Jews who perished with as much biographical detail as available. We found the Children’s Pavilion to be especially moving. There is one tiny light illuminated in a darkened room for each child lost. The names, ages and country of origin are read continuously in a role call.  There were approximately  1.5  million children killed in the Holocaust, aged of  14 or younger, and the ghostly images of their young faces are projected on walls.  There are mirrors strategically placed to magnify the effect, creating the illusion of an endless firmament of stars.

Extensive gardens and pathways surround the buildings, the largest of which is the Avenue of the Righteous Among Nations. It is a garden tribute to Gentiles who helped save Jews including Oskar Schindler. Over 16,000 individuals are recognized with trees planted in their honor with a

The Unfinished Columns - Yad Vashim

The Unfinished Columns – Yad Vashim

plaque containing each name, regardless whether it commemorates one Jew hidden in a farm house basement or a thousand  employed in a factory, effectively conveying the  message  that every single life is precious.  Also in the gardens we found another special beautiful and peaceful spot with a sculpture of half finished pillars symbolic of the unfinished lives that the Holocaust claimed. The museum was closing and the sun was setting so we reluctantly had to leave,  with much remaining to see on a future visit.

This evening we had a special dinner with Eilon at the Karma restaurant near the Yad Vashem. We made the Jewish toast, “l’chaim” (to life) with some excellent Israeli wine. The toast if pronounced “La Heim” but the H has to be pronounced as if you are clearing your throat of a major obstruction. Tomorrow we have a free day on our own and so we said an affectionate goodbye to Eilon, who leaves us with many memories and a special fondness for his own brand of English pronunciation which sounds part French, part Elmer Fudd, with soft “r”s pronounced like “w’s”. We will miss him

March 3, 2010

Dateline: Jerusalem, Israel

Today we had a free day and decided to see parts of the Old City that we had missed the previous two days. We had a zillion things to choose from so we skimmed the tour books to see what jumped out at us. We also agreed we would sleep in, just a bit, to get rested up from our two days of  hard core touring.

It was very windy as we walked to the Old City from our hotel, the Prima Royale. We stopped at the local YMCA, which is a far cry from the stereotypical “Y”. This one has a huge bell tower and an elaborate interior reminiscent of a fine hotel. We understood the prices are not like you typical “Y” either and they also have fine dining, but it wasn’t mealtime so we just did a walk-through. It was built between 1926 and 1933 by the same man who built the Empire State building. There is a soaring tower and two wings, and plenty of statuary including a 16 foot high six winged seraphim (aka angel). Like so much of Jerusalem, it is a real architectural mix – described in their brochure as Oriental Byzantine Romanesque Art Deco with Islamic art motifs. It sounds like a design nightmare but it actually works. Inside it is even more ornate. There are symbols from all 3 major religions (Jewish, Islamic, and Christian). There is a politically correct dome with 12 windows which represents the 12 Tribes of Israel, the 12 Followers of Mohammed or the 12 Disciples of Christ, take your pick. The politically correct chandelier has the cross, the crescent and the Star of David and the elements are beautifully blended  – if only the people of these 3 religions could function so well together. Oops there I go digressing again. Essentially, the theme of the interior design here is peace and tolerance among the faiths – always a good idea.

Shops along the Via Dolrosa

Shops along the Via Dolrosa

We walked on to the Old City and entered at the Jaffa Gate at mid-morning with the idea of walking the ramparts of the city walls. From there we would get an excellent perspective on the maze of narrow streets and alleyways that wind through the quarters, below an array domes and bell towers and steeples. There is a narrow passageway on the parapet atop the walls around the Old City. You cannot totally circumnavigate the Old City since the wall abutting the Temple Mount is closed, but you can walk the other three-fourths,  if you have the time and energy, passing over the city gates. There  are seven gates open today to the public – sometimes named for the place it leads to (e.g. Damascus Gate, Zion Gate,  Jaffa Gate) sometimes after people (Herod’s Gate, St. Stephen’s Gate )or a function such as the Dung Gate and New Gate, which was added in 1889 to allow additional access to the Christian Quarter.   We started our rampart walk at the  Citadel – a crusader era fortress built on the ruins of a fortress from the reign of Herod and the time of Jesus. The Citadel is on the West side of the Old City and we headed counter-clockwise to walk the southernmost ramparts. The other walk we would have to save for a later visit.

Ramparts of the Old City

Ramparts of the Old City

From our route on the parapet, a distance of ¾ mile, we got a soldier’s eye view of the Hinnom Valley and the settlements from the 1860’s below and the roof tops of the Citadel itself, although we learned that the current structure (high walls on both sides creating a narrow passageway were made by the Jordanians between 1948 and 1967 to fight off the Israelis rather than the Crusaders. Jerusalem was not wholly controlled by the Israelis until the 6 Day War in 1967. At the southwest corner, the ramparts make a 90 degree turn and we could look down on the Sultan’s Pool from Ottoman times, once an ancient reservoir, but now dry and used for concerts. From there we walked past the Church of the Dormition to Zion Gate. We could see from the ramparts the vast cemeteries on Mount Zion itself. Zion Gate has seen its own share of violence – most recently in the 1948 war for Independence when the Jordanians held the city and the Israelis blew up the gate to get inside. The walls are still pockmarked with bullet holes from that era. Below us were the markets in the Armenian Quarter where we had walked two days before.

The Courtyard of the Citadel

The Courtyard of the Citadel

We made our exit at the Dung Gate since the rampart walk ended and we descended a series of steps and found ourselves on Chain Street in the Muslim Quarter, so called because it leads to the Gate to the Haram esh-Sharif (the Muslim name for the Temple Mount) which at one time was operated by chains. Here we met Kifa, a very earnest and pleasant young Muslim man, and a freelance guide who offered to give us a tour of the Haram esh-Sharif (a.k.a. Noble Sanctuary) for a reasonable amount of shekels.  The Dome of the Rock itself was closed due the previous few days of name calling and rock throwing.

Just to recap what all the contention is about here – the Jews revere the site because they believe it was the place where Abraham offered his son to God as a sacrifice to demonstrate his obedience and faith. The Muslims revere this as a holy site because it is believed that this is the spot from where Mohammed ascended to the heavens on his Night Journey. It is believed that he traveled from Mecca to Jerusalem to heaven to meet with God and returned to Mecca by morning. However, it is also commonly believed that the spot was chosen because it was sacred to Jews and the Muslim caliph decided to locate his mosque here with the idea that the people should embrace the new religion which was intended to replace the old. As years went by – it possibly became more central to the Muslim faith – in keeping with the “sharp stick in your eye” tradition.

TheMarocco Restaurant in the Muslim Quarter

The Marocco Restaurant in the Muslim Quarter

We arranged to meet Kifa in one hour, agreeing among ourselves that a Muslim guide is definitely the way to go since we don’t want to be the source of an international incident or inadvertently generate any rock throwing.  The hours of visitation for non-Muslims to Haram esh-Sharif are actually a single hour from 12:30 p.m to 1:30 p.m. , which gave us a half an hour free, so we dropped into the Marocco Café, a tiny Arab restaurant with a very hospitable staff on the now familiar El Wad Road for Cokes and freshly squeezed orange juice.

We met Kifa who had added another tourist to our group, a young German man who spoke some English, the only language common to everyone, and so the multi-lingual Kifa conducted the tour in English. We ended up translating for the German gentleman since Kifa’s English was hard for us native speakers to understand and so by the time it got translated it into German, there was no telling what he thought Kifa was telling us. We entered the Haram esh-Sharif on the elevated walkway above the Western Wall with an excellent view of the goings on down below. We did see a secret service type stopped at a security check point and it turned out he was armed. We think he was somebody’s body guard, but he was turned away regardless, and escorted from the premises. Security is really tight and in addition to weapons, they are looking for religious texts and prayer books in case someone wants to do some non-Muslim praying or sermonizing on the grounds. On our way up to the mount on the walkway, we passed stacks of Plexiglas riot shield that looked well used, but hoped that they would not be needed today.

As a side note to the well-used riot gear, we were told by both our Jewish and Muslim guides is that Jews, Christians and Muslims in Israel are generally tolerant of each other and respectful of each other’s beliefs, often much more so that foreigners  are.  They say that living side by side for centuries generates this tolerance and that generally ignorance of other cultures and religion breeds the majority of the fear and distrust that exists, with the Ultra Orthodox Jews and jihadist Muslims being the notable exceptions. Kifa told us that before the intifadas and resultant Israeli crackdowns, the Haram el-Sharif was open all the time and people could come and go as they pleased. However the wackos have gotten more aggressive in the last 10 years,  and so access for everyone, Muslims included is severely limited.

The Dome of the Rock

The Dome of the Rock

We entered the grounds of Haram esh-Sharif  through the Moor’s Gate which is one of only two gates than non-Muslims may use. It is actually a walled compound within the walled city of Old Jerusalem. We emerged from the walkway to find ourselves in a very tranquil park-like setting. You would never imagine, history and media aside, all of the blood that has been shed over this tiny plot of of ground. Our eyes were immediately drawn to The Dome of the Rock, golden and fabulous in the early afternoon sun. The dome itself is made of individual gold-plated panels. The originals plates were copper, but King Hussein of Jordan contributed the money to convert them to gold.  The Dome of the Rock, which is a shrine, not a mosque, clearly dominates the esplanade of Haram esh-Sharif, as well as the Jerusalem skyline.  It is considered the first and greatest achievement of Islamic architecture. It was built in 688-691 A.D. by Caliph Abd el-Malik, whose intention was to proclaim the superiority and glory of Islam. It is an eight sided building below the dome which is architecturally, very mathematically precise and symmetrical. In addition to the golden dome, there is incredible tile work in blue and white. Some are geometric designs, but many are Arabic scrollwork with quotations from the Quran. There is scripture telling of the Night Journey of Mohammed on the circular drum of the building which sits on the roof of the octagonal building and supports the dome. The exterior walls are a combination of marble panels and more blue and white tiles with more Quranic verse.  We saw pictures of the interior which is indeed fabulous, so we hope to be able to return

The Quanatir

The Quanatir

at a more peaceful time (whenever that may be) so we can see it .  There is actually a rock inside with the floor built around it, or if you are a strict believer, it is THE rock. The Shrine has an inner and outer ambulatory which you can walk around, which is thought to emulate the circular walks that pilgrims take once they reach Mecca. Each side of the Dome of the Rock has its own flight of stairs with a freestanding arcade called a quanatir.

The Dome of the Rock has many smaller domes around it, with the most impressive being the Dome of the Chain, with its domed roof supported by 17 columns and its ceiling decorated with elaborately tiled artwork. It is said to be built on the geographic center of the Haram esh-Sharif and thus is considered by some to be the center of the world. Some of the columns supporting the arcade are recycled from Roman era buildings, a widely practiced construction shortcut in those days. It supposedly got its name because a chain was hung from the center of the Dome and whoever told a lie while holding on to the chain would be struck by lightning. The chain is no longer there so perhaps someone decided it was a bone-headed idea – sort of like sticking your tongue to the flagpole in sub-zero weather.

While the Dome of the Rock is the primary attraction, there are many other things to see including the many fountains throughout the grounds, most to facilitate the mandatory ritual cleansing before prayers.  The earliest and largest fountain dates from 1320 and is still in use.  The Museum of Islamic Art is housed in a Crusader era refectory and is more of a history museum than an art museum. Most of the buildings around the esplanade are madrasas (religious schools, but not the rabid terrorist-spawning variety have given them all a bad name in the western world.  The oldest madrasa dates back to 1482, with an elaborate entrance of Mameluke design, typified by bands of colored stone. Also visible from the esplanade is the inside view of the Golden Gate which we saw from the outside two days ago. It was the one walled up by the Muslims in the 7th Century to restrict access to the Haram el-Sharif.

The El Aqsa Mosque

The El Aqsa Mosque

Kifa showed us El Aqsa  (which means “the mosque” in Arabic,) and again we could only view it from the outside. We didn’t exactly understand why we could not go inside. Kifa’s attempt to be both diplomatic and speak English may have failed him. It was, we think, one or more of these things: prayer time, unrest, gender, or infidel status. El Aqsa was first built 20 years after the Dome, but not with the same artistry, nor apparently with the same craftsmanship, since it was twice leveled by earthquakes. The present structure dates from the 11th century. It was taken by Crusaders in 1099 as Templar Headquarters and they added

The Prayer Hall of El Aqsa

The Prayer Hall of El Aqsa

a facade. Later when they were driven out, the Mamelukes  took over and added more arches to the façade. In the interior there are many 20th Century additions including marble columns donated by Mussolini (who would ever have thought of Benito as a benefactor?) and electric lights.  The elaborate ceiling was provided courtesy of King Farouk of Egypt. El Aqsa also has a dome, but it is rather drab compared the golden dome. Also inside they once had a finely carved pulpit called a minbar (not to be confused with mini-bar) until it was lost in a fire started by a deranged visitor, which may explain why we were not welcome inside.

We left the grounds promptly at 1:30 amid announcements to the effect that it was time for all the infidels to exit (an approximation of the translation). We left through the Cotton Merchants Gate and were again back on the narrow streets of the Muslim Quarter in the Souk el-Qattanin, a covered market selling all sorts of exotic goods in addition to the usual tourist stuff. Kifa pointed out to us a series of Muslim residences where it is customary to put up a poster advertising you have made your pilgrimage to Mecca. This is one of the requirements of all Muslims as one of their 5 Pillars of Faith.

Because we enjoyed our earlier time there, we went back to the Marocco for lunch with our very hospitable host and another great Arabic feast. It seems we have  developed a taste for chick peas (the basis for hummus) that we are not sure will last once we get back home. We also had chicken on skewers, shwarma, fresh pita just out of the oven and more fresh squeezed orange juice. The juice machine sat at the front of the store and each glass was freshly squeezed from the oranges piled high on either side.  There was an orange delivery in progress while we were having lunch, delivered in a hand pushed cart. It was a small donkey cart, only a small boy was pushing it instead of the donkey pulling it.

After lunch we walked through a maze of bazaars and ancient narrow streets back to the Jaffa Gate to visit the David Museum, which is housed in the Citadel where we started our explorations earlier in the day. There are 3 routes to see – the Observation Route along the ramparts which we did in the morning, the Excavation Route which focuses on archaeological aspects and the Exhibition Route which focuses on the history of the city. We chose the latter and found it was comprised more of models and dioramas than objects, which proved to be ideal since it gave us an idea of what things looked like in ancient times.  I won’t go into all the history here, but suffice it to say – there is a lot of it, spanning from 3150 B.C. to the present day. We actually saw the exhibits out of chronological order due to a map mix-up, but still got the gist of the way things went.

Our brains were once again saturated with history and culture as we walked out of the Old City and so we sought relief at the nearby King David Hotel. They had some big bouncer types at the front door – but very refined bouncers – no chains, black leather or tattoos, and they let us in without a bag search or a body cavity check. We ordered cocktails and wine in the lobby bar and sipped them slowly as we observed the comings and goings of the upper crust, including what we presumed to be an upper crust wedding party. This was a reasonable assumption, since middle or lower crust people could probably not afford to have a wedding here. Although, they cater to the wealthy, the hotel is the ultimate in understated elegance.  One exception to the understatement would be the names in the floor of the corridor just off the lobby of famous hotel guests over the years (sort of Graumann’s Chinese theater effect – but very well done). The furnishings were very ornate, with a mix of Egyptian, Phoenician, Greek design.

The hotel was built in the 1930’s for a Jewish Egyptian family (a rather odd combo) out of pink limestone, although it looks more tan than pink. The windows are trimmed in forest green and there are burgundy awnings on the windows. It was designed to look like an Egyptian temple and the lobby is described as being King Solomon style, with soaring ceilings and towering pillars – more of a throne room than  a cozy hotel. After a few glasses of wine, you could imagine the pharaoh being hauled in on a solid gold palanquin by 10 burly slaves. Of course the revolving doors at the front of the hotel could be problematic in that scenario.

The King David Hotel has the distinction of being bombed in 1946 by the Zionist terrorist paramilitary group called Irgun. Some called them an army, but the nomenclature would probably depend on which side of the bomb detonator you happened to be on. At the time Irgun was under the leadership of one Menachem Begin, but the hotel owners apparently forgave him for the explosives, and he became a frequent visitor in later years. Despite the violence and threats of violence (it is quite an attractive target since it is the hotel of choice of the Western Fat Cats), it continues to be the premier hotel in Israel, hosting royalty, politicians, international celebrities and the occasional tourists who try to blend. We don’t know if we succeed in blending, but we were graciously served. They may have mistaken us for some foreign dignitaries,  or maybe it was just the Amex Card.  We and our Amex cards opted for an early dinner and early bedtime, concluding that tourism in Jerusalem is not for wimps.



The Holy Land Part 4 – Jordan


 The Holy Land

Part Four:   Jordan

March 4, 2010

Dateline: Amman, Jordan

Latitude at Amman 31.57 Degrees North, Longitude 35.56 Degrees East

Today we were picked up early for our two hour trip by car to the Jordanian border for the final leg of our Holy Land trip. Watching the landscape pass, and thinking of everything we have seen, I have a phrase of Dr. Seuss in my head that goes like this: “you have brains in your head and feet in your shoes, you can steer yourself in any direction you choose”. Today we chose to steer ourselves east to the Kingdom of Jordan. We were interested to learn that there is a wealth of Biblical history in Jordan, which makes sense since today’s borders are very new in an area that measures its history in terms of thousands of years. The Holy Land is a complex term – it covers multiple present day countries and multiple religions. Our driver will take us to the Hussein Bridge at the Sheik Hussein check point near Bet She’an (although the Allenby Bridge is closer), since we are going to do some sight-seeing in Northern Jordan this morning before continuing south to Amman. The border is open, but tightly controlled and the process seems to be something  akin to a POW exchange.  Gypsies and Bedouins (both nomads) cannot wander freely across the borders as they can in other countries. Most stay in Israel where there is greater tolerance for their wandering ways. At the border, we stopped to get our VAT tax refund for our Dead Sea purchases. We then had to clear security in Israel – then Immigration, then pay a departure tax (which is more than the VAT refund they just gave us) then Customs, then through a duty free store (not sure that is on the POW exchange itinerary). It is not an option – you actually exit through the store. We thought surely we were in Jordan by then, but no, we had to schlep our bags another few hundred yards to a bus stop which is actually a no man’s land /DMZ sort of place which is technically shared territory and take the bus into Jordan where we again do the security, immigration and customs routine. We are met by Sala (pronounced Sah-lah), our Jordanian guide and our driver, Zahir, who is nicknamed Zuzu. We found him to be much more sedate in his driving than Eilon, whom we suspected used his tank driving experience in operating the Mercedes SUV. With him it was sort like we were always on patrol in enemy territory and civilian traffic rules didn’t apply. We noticed that Zazu has really striking blue green eyes and wondered if he is a descendant of perhaps a Crusader Knight Templar from centuries gone by.

The Jordan River Valley

The Jordan River Valley

The country side was beautiful and mountainous with red poppies, yellow sunflowers and purple thistle, creating a blanket of bloom against a pale green background covering all the meadows. Looking back we could see the Jordan River Valley, appearing lush and fertile. We can see the Judean Mountains of Israel in the distance. Sala told us that the Jordan is part of the Great Rift Valley that starts in Turkey and runs through Africa from north to south. There is a lot of local color along the way – trucks whizzing past us with clucking chickens poking their heads out of baskets, the random goat here and there on the front porch of a shanty-type dwelling, and tomatoes and other produce offered for sale out of the back of a pickup truck. Sala told us that the haphazardly built houses we see (maybe architecturally challenged might be the politically correct word), he calls moron houses because when they want more room, they simply add more on.

The mountains we ascended are called the Gilad Range, although they are often referred to in Christian writings as Gilead, which was the Biblical name for what is today Northern Jordan.  You may recall the Biblical verse asking “Is there a balm in Gilead? (Jeremiah 8:22) which is sort of like asking if there  is a doctor in the house, but this applies to a doctor or medicinal balm in the spiritual sense to heal troubled souls. The olive groves gave way to evergreens and the landscape got more rugged with the rocks grudgingly permitting trees to sprout in their crevices. Below us the terraced olive groves fell away to the river’s edge and the border with Israel.

The official name of the country is the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. The term Hashemite (called Banu Hashim in Arabic which translates as the Hashim clan) refers to a tribe of people believed to be descended from Mohammed. The Royal Family includes King Hussein who ruled from 1953 to 1999 and was the 42nd generation and now King Abdullah is 43rd in the line of direct descendants. The capital is Amman, and the currency is the dinar. (Exchange rate is 1.50 dinar to the dollar). The country is 90 per cent Islamic and 10 per cent Christian and contains numerous religious sites for all 3 major religions. The official language is Arabic, but English is widely spoken. A Jordanian man can have a maximum of 4 wives by law, but Sala tells us that one is plenty (or perhaps sometimes more than plenty) for most men nowadays. Sala said he has 3 openings for new wives if we have any recommendations, but said it may not be a good idea since a mistake on his part would be magnified by factor of 4. Families traditionally live together in a multi-generational environment – if not in the same house, then in houses clustered together.

Jordan has really benefitted from peace with Israel. Since 1993 they have been able to spend money on people rather than defense, and now have 27 universities with a diverse international student body. The result is a very modern and prosperous country. Jordan has a population of 5.5 million. It was partitioned off from Palestine in 1923 and became independent in 1946. We found Jordan to be very laid back compared to Israel. Like Israel, it is a small country with an area of only 36,000 square miles – 90% of which is desert from Amman south to the port city (the only port for Jordan) of Aqaba, (pronounced Ah-kah-ba with the accent on “ah”). From Amman north, the country is green and mountainous. From Amman south it is desert. Queen Noor is not the mother of the current king, Abdullah. She was the 4th wife of Hussein, but he had his sequentially not simultaneously. The Queen Alia airport, named after one of the wives of King Hussein who died in a plane crash. He then married American Lisa Halaby who became Queen Noor. Abdullah is married to the very westernized Queen Rania, who has appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair and on various U.S. news programs .

Ajlun Castle

Ajlun Castle

Our first stop today is Ajlun Castle, (pronounced “Azh-loon“), built by the Arabs in 1184-85 A.D. to defend against those pesky Crusaders, who like the Energizer Bunny, kept going and going, invasion after invasion for about 200 years. This castle was the northern-most of three fortresses built for that purpose. The other two are named Kerak and Shobak and are in the desert and we did a drive-by shooting (cameras only) of them later in our visit. The castle’s Arabic name is Qalat ar-Rabad. The Muslim hero Saladin (pronounced to rhyme with Paula Deen) was successful here against the Crusaders and went on to expel them from Jerusalem. The castle was built from blocks of limestone, sandstone and basalt. It was built to last thousands of years, and it did until the Ottomans abandoned it in the 1800’s and it fell victim to pilferage of stones to build other structures, including no doubt some “moron”

The Castle Tea Salesman

The Castle Tea Salesman

houses, and thus it is mostly a ruin now. Still the castle is very imposing in the distance and must have looked quite menacing to advancing armies. We trekked through the various rooms of the castle and manhandled a few of the catapult balls left behind– about the size of bowling balls. I was surprised they were quite manageable, and I think I could have been a catapult loader in another life. We didn’t see any vats once filled with boiling oil, but we did encounter a tea salesman with boiling tea he was selling to visitors and Stu sampled his private brew and pronounced it strong, but tasty.

We stopped for lunch at a local restaurant for a mixed grill lunch. We arrived to the aroma of

Freshly Made Saj

Freshly Made Saj

thin bread baking on clay pot dome-like stones over an open flame brick oven. It looked similar to foccacia, but was thin, like pizza. As best I could tell it was called “kobis”, but I also heard it referred to as “saj”. We decided to just call it bread when we asked the waiters for more. The mixed grill was cooked on skewers and was similar to other Arabic meals we had and was quite delicious. A note on bathrooms in Jordan – we found them to be very Western in nature (toilet seats and a flusher are the criteria for “Western”) and quite clean. Sala said Jordanians jokingly refer to them as the Happy Place – we were just glad to see they also were furnished with Happy Paper. They had an impressive array of shishas (water pipes), which the Jordanians call nargileh, but we skipped this particular offering today.

Hadrian's Arch - Jerash

Hadrian’s Arch – Jerash

After lunch, we traveled to Jerash , known as Gerasa in Classical times, (It is pronounced Jar-ash with the accent on “Jar”) and one of the best preserved Roman cities in the Middle East. It rose to prominence as a Greek city (one of the 10 in the area known as the Decapolis) in the Third Century B.C. Then in the First Century B.C., it was a self-governed city in the Roman province of Syria. Emperor Trajan put an end to the autonomy, but the city grew and prospered under his reign and that of other emperors including Hadrian, who built himself a number of impressive structures including his own arch. Subsequent emperors continued the trend (no limited government spending here either) and the city grew to magnificent proportions, with much of it still standing today, despite the neglect during the Muslim era and a series of devastating earthquakes between 527 A.D. and 565 A.D. By the time the Crusades took place, it was pretty much all over for Jerash.

The good news is that the excavation of Jerash started in the 1920’s and continued for 40 years. What has been uncovered is awe inspiring, although less than half of the city has been excavated to date. Jerash was so grandly conceived and beautifully constructed, it is often referred to as the Pompeii of the East. Like Pompeii, it was beset by natural disasters and had

The Oval Plaza at Jerash

The Oval Plaza at Jerash

to be excavated, but the covering up was a process that took centuries, versus a single day by a volcanic eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.   Today, visitors can see the evidence of a truly fabulous city, and can imagine what it was at its peak. For our visit, it was springtime with fields of poppies, daisies and yellow mustard scattered among the ruins. We saw the occasional goat roaming about grazing among the ruins, which somehow added to the charm of the place. We were quite surprised to hear bagpipe music as we strolled through the ruins of the city. Sala told us that this is a carryover from the years of the British Mandate from 1917 to Independence in 1946.The mandate was put in place after the successful Great Arab Revolt of 1916 against the Ottoman Turks, led by Lawrence of Arabia. You may remember Peter O’Toole and his baby blue eyes, deeply tanned and deeply handsome in Arab dress in the 1962 movie, Lawrence of Arabia. Later in the trip we went to Wadi Rum where it was filmed. In our travels we are always amazed at the reach and influence of the British Empire. At its zenith It was indeed true that the sun never set on the British Empire. (A Scots friend of ours says that’s because even God can’t trust the British in the dark).

The Roman Theater at Jerash

The Roman Theater at Jerash

Despite the earthquakes, much of Jerash remained standing due to Roman ingenuity in earthquake technology. Columns were designed for flexibility and set into a base with a ball and joint arrangement that allowed the columns to move without falling. Jerash is probably the most impressive Roman structure we have seen, certainly on a par with Ephesus. The grandeur and the sheer size of the ancient city are stunning.   It was a walled city in its day, although the walls are largely gone or absorbed by the town, which has grown up around, and in many cases built over, many structures.

Our first stop was the Hippodrome where ancient chariot races were held. Sala told us they still do them for the tourists, but we just missed the last one. I am not sure what we missed since it is billed as the Roman Army Chariot Experience and Gladiator Show. I am all for “experiences”, but the gladiator show part called to mind something between Disney World and “pro” wrestling – I had visions of Hulk Hogan in a Roman tunic and lace-up sandals.  In any event, we will have to catch this next time. Sala told us that chariots were a common mode of transport for the upper class and we saw where the streets are still marked with chariot ruts etched into the stone. There was the usual array of temples dedicated to various gods and goddesses, plus there were actually some Christian churches added in Byzantine times. There was a large agora (market) where food was sold with a decorative fountain in its center. The streets were not mere

The Cardo - Jerash

The Cardo – Jerash

streets, but long avenues delineated by stately columns. The main street of Jerash was called the Cardo, which ran north and south for approximately 660 yards, and was lined with shops, restaurants and residences. It was intersected by an equally impressive street called the Decumanus. Intersections of the main streets are called tetrapylon which translates at crossroads. Many structures were dedicated to the arts, including two theaters and a public fountain called the Nymphaeum. Romans believed in nymphs (little water creatures) so this was as much temple as pleasure spot. Many of the structures still have sections of their original mosaic floors.

Of course Roman cities wouldn’t be Roman without massive public baths, so those were very much in evidence, but one of the most striking structures was the Oval Plaza which was an open paved area with 160 Ionic columns and a stone floor of approximately 80 meters by 90 meters. It is believed that its purpose was for public gatherings.

Bagpiper and Drummers

Bagpiper and Drummers

On our way out we stopped at one of the theaters for a brief concert performed by the Jordanian bagpipers, (actually one piper piping and two drummers drumming), but with olive drab uniforms instead of plaid kilts. They also wore keffiyahs (pronounced “ca-fee-yah” with the accent on “fee”), the Arab head dress favored by desert dwellers.

From Jerash we made the short trip to Amman, which we were surprised to find is every bit as hilly as San Francisco, although much more monochromatic, with houses and buildings made largely of white limestone from the surrounding hills. Sala told us that the limestone is cleaned with sand since water is at a premium. Amman is an extremely old city, home to civilized people for close to 6,000 years. In Biblical times, people called the Ammonites lived here. Then it became one of the 10 Cities of the Roman Decapolis and was named Philadelphia (long before our City of Brotherly Love, of course). There are quite a few Roman ruins, but after Jerash, they seemed small. We saw a citadel which has fortified a hilltop for centuries at the heart of city while driving in an area called Jebel el-Qalaa, where there are also the ruins of a Roman temple, and an amphitheater that would seat 6,000, built in 170 AD.

Suburbs of Amman

Suburbs of Amman

Jordan has its own housing glut, with approximately 100,000 empty apartments because of the recession.  Sala spoke openly about the challenges and issues that Jordanians face, but he is very diplomatic. The term “problem” can cover everything from recession to riots. Amman is an interesting mix of old and new – there are glass and steel skyscrapers (sort of a Dubai in the mountains) and roadside stands with tables made from half a dozen cinder blocks supporting couple of 2X6 boards or old doors. We actually saw a camel lot where camels are for sale (a far cry from Camelot (and, of course, enjoyed the pun). Given Sala’s indulgent smile, we think he hears this a lot from his English speaking clients). Sala told us that they use 100% of the camel here including the meat. He offered to get Gary some camel meat, since he noticed he is quite the carnivore, but he settled for a Starbucks coffee instead.  We had to borrow money from Sala since we didn’t have a chance to get Jordanian dinars yet. In the old part of the city we saw a flurry of deliveries of coffee and tea (as opposed to pizza), as delivery boys negotiated traffic on foot or on bicycles to nearby offices. They had open, little glass cups on metal trays so the ones on bikes had to balance with one hand, while steering with the other. Much of the new Amman has been built in the last 10 years since they made peace with Israel. In Jordan, there are many rich people in a very poor country. Gary was disappointed to learn the Harley Davidson dealership is not yet open.

The streets were busy with a strong, but not menacing police presence, more of a British Bobbie look and feel. Sala gave us what was billed as a Panoramic Tour of Amman.  We found the city, like the countryside very westernized and most women cover their heads, but not their faces, although many, including Queen Rania cover neither.  Clothing here is by choice not by law.

The western part of Amman is more prosperous than east and we noticed that even the dogs look upper class here. The most exclusive area is called Abdoun, which is home to the US Embassy. They very strictly enforce a “no pictures” area around the embassy for security reasons. The embassy compound is gigantic, almost Pentagon sized, for reasons far beyond our simple understanding of need. Outside there are Jordanian troops manning machine guns mounted on jeeps. There are U.S. troops on the inside which keeps things cool in foreign relations in case some radical nut-job comes to Amman seeking glory in the hereafter. We saw

Sheep and goats in the poshest street in Amman

Sheep and goats in the posh section of Amman

the Jordanian equivalent of Embassy Row on the most prestigious street in Abdoun called Al Quirah. The street is lined with mansions set behind walls and surrounded by beautiful gardens.  Sala showed us the house of the richest man in Jordan, and we were amazed to see goats grazing next door and in fact trotting down the street.  We assumed zoning isn’t what one would expect here. He is supposedly married to the daughter of a Russian Mafioso. Abdoun is very “Rodeo Drive” in some sections, very “Dukes of Hazard” in others. We checked into the Hyatt, a very luxurious hotel in a neighborhood of very luxurious hotels. Our clerk was Usama, another spelling for Osama, which is a quite common first name in these parts, and thus no cause for alarm. Our Usama could not have been more hospitable.  We decided to have a quiet dinner at one of the hotel’s 3 excellent restaurants.

March 5, 2010

Dateline:  Petra, Jordan

At breakfast we got rather excited at the sight of what we perceived to be real bacon, but alas, it turned out to be beef, not pork. We are in a Western Hotel in a Westernized Muslim country, but some taboos are not meant to be broken even here, so we will have to wait a few more days to indulge in any pork products. Sala and Zuzu picked us up at our hotel this morning and we headed southwest to Madaba, a place mentioned in the Old Testament as a city conquered by one of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. In those days there were three kingdoms: Edom in the south, Moab in the center and Ammon in the north. In the 4th Century A.D. it became an important Christian center with its own bishop, and weathered a number of invasions from the Persians and Muslims, but it declined in the 16th Century and was abandoned for over 300 years. Its name means water and food in Aramaic, the language spoken here at the time.

We found Madaba to be dusty and arid with a somewhat barren landscape, appearing to be a little down-at-the-heels town at the edge of acres and acres of olive groves. We did find some prosperous looking homes, but the goat and sheep rambling around the premises gave the houses sort of a “Beverly Hillbillies” feel. Today Madaba is famous for mosaics, both old and new. Here we saw the oldest surviving mosaic of the Holy Land on the floor of St. George’s Church which portrays a map of the Holy Land, believed to be created under the rule of the Roman Emperor Justinian who ruled from 527 to 565 A.D. It remained undiscovered until the late 19th Century when Christians were allowed by the ruling Muslims to build churches in Madaba on the foundations of previous structures. It was during the process of building St. George’s Church that the old mosaic was found.  Unfortunately, there was extensive damage before the mosaic was recognized as something of value.  The map shows many places in detail (if not geographically correct detail) including Gaza, which was a major port in those days, and the walled city of Jerusalem as it looked in Roman times when it was called Aelia Capitolina, complete with identifiable landmarks,  as seen from above (remarkable because, of course, no one could see it from above back then). Although the Romans had been gone from Jerusalem hundreds of years, it didn’t change much by the Sixth Century when the mosaic was done. Given its antiquity, it is understandable if the artists have the Nile flowing in the wrong direction and it is oriented East and West vs. North and South. The Nile is also on the far right which would make it east instead of west of Jerusalem. The map also depicts the Jordan River, the Cities of Nablus and Bethlehem, and the pre-Crusader Kerak fortress in what is today central Jordan. The geography as we know it today is a little wacky, but it is still impressive that someone knew all these places and got them essentially right, if not to scale, nor exactly in the

right places. The artists also included the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee with boats, fish and fishermen. The fishermen’s faces have been hacked out, presumably by some iconoclast who believed human likenesses should not be reproduced by man. This belief is still held by traditional Muslims and some Jewish factions. The art and sculptures of the Christian churches and structures must have given them fits since they plastered them all over everything they built.

There is also an archaeological park here with several other churches dating from the same period as St. George’s. We found it interesting that many Christian churches had artwork depicting Roman gods and goddesses. Sala told us that this was the method by which they converted pagans to Christianity – they more or less wove the pagan myths into Christian artwork, creating a blended religion and then eventually phased the pagan part out.  Ancient Christians did not deal with contradictions – they felt that compromise was the path to conversion.

Leaving Madaba, we saw a number of Bedouin tents – dark upon the lighter khaki landscape. Sala told us that the tents we see with plastic are gypsy camps. The Bedouin apparently do not like plastic- and thankfully so – it’s hard to really appreciate the local color when there is plastic flapping in the breeze.  The Bedouin build rock cairns to mark their property, although they are mostly squatters/homesteaders. Here in the desert, many men wear the keffiyeh made from the picnic tablecloth fabric favored by Yasser Arafat. It both protects from the sun and the frequent sand storms. It comes in a variety of patterns depending on where you are from (not all that different from Scots and their plaids).  We learned that they are available on Amazon.com in case we want to get outfitted as a Bedouin.

Our next stop was Mt. Nebo, the peak from where Moses saw the Promised Land, as described in the book of Deuteronomy. It rises 3,300 feet above the Dead Sea below. You may recall that Moses came to Mt. Nebo after wandering in the desert for 40 years, leading the 12 Tribes of Israel out of slavery. Since he started in nearby Egypt, it is safe to assume that  for much of that time he was lost, but some believe it just took him that long because he had to come to a state of enlightenment (not to imply that Moses was a slow learner or anything).  Others say it took him that long because he was denied permission to cross certain lands. Anyway, Moses died before he got to the promised land – the land across the Jordan River, know as modern day Israel. Moses is considered a prophet and is revered by all three major world religions. Moses died near here (in the land of Moab as it was called then) and it is assumed his burial place is nearby, but its place will remain “a mystery to all of mankind” according to the Bible.

Gary Meets the Bedouin Body Builder

Gary Meets the Bedouin Body Builder

We had an interesting encounter at the entrance to Mt. Nebo on the grounds below the summit. There is usually a souvenir vendor (or two) at every tourist/pilgrimage spot in the Holy Land and this was no exception, however this was a vendor with a twist. He was selling fossils and assorted rocks, and in his spare time, he was obviously a body builder. He wore a very tight nylon shirt and shorts, the better to show off his musculature, so we thought. He had the requisite “six-pack” abs alright, but there was something really strange going on with his pectoral muscles that somehow seemed to look like Madonna’s bosom on one of her old album covers where she wore the very odd pointy bra resembling two of the Tin Man hats from the Wizard of Oz. He also had massive biceps that indicated he had pumped a lot of iron in his time, but he professed to be from a poor Bedouin family, so maybe he was lifting a lot of sheep instead of barbells. He did have sort of spindly legs for such a muscled up guy and, mistaking Gary for a fellow body builder, he asked him for a few pointers on how to build up his thighs and calves. Gary didn’t have any suggestions for that, but did offer him some tips on how to build up his belly, since his was pretty puny looking compared to Gary’s.  But I digress – back to Mount Nebo.

The Promised Land  as Seen from Mt. Nebo

The Promised Land as Seen from Mt. Nebo

We walked from the parking lot up a steep path to the summit toward a sweeping panorama that looked to be unchanged since Biblical times (as long as you ignored those ant-like cars in the distance). The arid Moab desert where Moses wandered for 40 years is visible to the south. The hillsides were tan, and sparsely vegetated with scrub brush, mixed with the occasional drab green rectangle of an olive grove. Off to one side we saw a shepherd boy with a flock of sheep, with his denim jeans and tee shirt the only giveaway that thousands of years had passed since Moses was here.  We saw strings tied to the branches of various shrubs and small trees (actually there are no large trees) and Sala told us that Indian tourists do this to make a wish (sort of like coins in the fountain), but it certainly creates an eyesore – not a Biblical vibe at all.  The church on this site, called the Memorial Church of Moses, was closed for renovations so we did not get to go inside. It dates back to 521 A.D. and is built upon the ruins of previous construction, but we had to content ourselves with Sala’s description of the tourist

Mosaic Artisan keeps the tradition alive in Madaba

Mosaic Artisan keeps the tradition alive in Madaba

delights within. Our next stop was back in Madaba at a mosaic workshop where craftspeople made beautifully intricate mosaics. We each bought a “Tree of Life” mosaic to take home as a souvenir of Jordan. We were soaking up the local culture chatting with the craft persons, when the manager of the business stopped by to introduce himself in perfect Midwestern English. It seems he grew up in Cincinnati and came back to Jordan at the behest of the Jordanian Ministry of Art which subsidizes the mosaic business in an attempt to retain the tradition and the skills of the artisans.  He told us that business is booming and they ship all over the world. Gary went into the Ladies Room by mistake (says didn’t understand the Arabic on the door), but got his first clue with the pink potty with flowers on it and he fled the scene before he created an international incident.

We were surprised to see liquor stores in town and asked if the proprietors are Christian since it is strictly forbidden for Muslims to indulge. Sala said not necessarily – they can own stores and not drink. Some Muslims do drink despite the rules, which living in the Bible Belt of the USA, we can certainly identify with.  We also have found the spot where Old Mercedes’ go to retire. Madaba is a town full of them. Madaba also has several mining related industries, including the production of phosphate, potash and cement produced by a large corporation called Al Abyad.

Back in Madaba for lunch, we saw a cafe called The Mr. Shwarma Restaurant whose specialty is, you guessed it, “shwarma”, which you may recall from a previous travelogue is roasted meat, thinly shaved and served on pita bread.  It looked a little suspect (not sure how the Health Department would rate the kitchen), but we were willing to try. However, it was not on the program. Instead we ate a buffet lunch at the Dana Restaurant that was quite tasty, if totally predictable in a restaurant with clean bathrooms, which of course are de rigueur for us tourist types of the American persuasion. We are getting a little burned out on hummus, tahini, babaganoush and pita bread and our taste buds are craving a pork chop or at least a cheeseburger. Gary thought he needed new glasses as he tried to decipher the bill. He finally realized it was, not only in dinars, but also in Hebrew and Arabic, and so Sala had to help us out with that.

Shopping at Abu Habib's Cave Store

Shopping at Abu Habib’s Cave Store

Driving south, we took what is called the Desert Highway which stretches from the Syrian border to Aqaba. We saw on distant hilltops the other two Crusader era castles in this area.  Near the southernmost of these castles, Shobak, built in 1115 A.D., we stopped for pictures. It is impressively sited on a peak 4.265 feet above sea level.  Its exterior is well preserved, due largely to the fact that no one wanted to schlep up the mountain to get the stones to build their own structures, especially since  the Romans had left all that good stuff lying around. Just below Shobak, we stopped at a store/cave in the side of a hill. It was not on the tour, but we clamored to stop and Zuzu of course accommodated us. And what a serendipitous event this proved to be. The shopkeeper/owner was a little on the scruffy side, but most welcoming.  To be polite to the elderly, in Arabic they are addressed as Abu, (father) and a youngster would be called Ali

Getting Acquainted with Abu Habib

Getting Acquainted with Abu Habib

(son).  Abu Habib prepared tea  for us as is customary in Arab speaking shops, and spun tales about his wares – everything from priceless antiques (just a figure of speech – everything was for sale for a price) and foreign coins  to odd rocks, rusty kitchen utensils and ancient hair appliances. He had a 1916 Mauser used by the Bedouin until they ran out of bullets. A piece of wood was bolted on to replace the missing stock (in lieu of duct tape, we assumed). Gary bought a castle key and we were thinking maybe Shobak up on the mountain above us went with it, but Abu Habib just laughed and offered us more tea. He had an ancient TV (speaking of antiques) sitting atop an ancient refrigerator (a generator of some sort was heard, but unseen) All in all, it was a fascinating stop. We have often found that the unplanned adventures are often the best and meeting colorful local people is always a bonus.

Driving south, the desert grew increasingly arid and rocky, with the landscape a lighter shade of brown. The Bedouin are more prevalent here, mixed with Indian (from India not America) gypsies. Bedouin weave their own tents and keep a much tidier camp than gypsies. They also have a better work ethic according to Sala. He said the gypsies beg and steal, although some women do work as belly dancers. They also hang laundry anywhere and everywhere. We saw a number of camels, but none are wild – they belong to the Bedouin.  Sala told us that camel milk is reputed to be better than Viagra to help the Bedouin men keep busy making sons all their lives. I don’t know what beverage you drink for a daughter. Many shepherds have donkeys to haul their “stuff” and many have dogs to help with herds.  We saw no stray dogs, but did see stray cats – no jobs for them I guess, so they must be freeloading off the tax payers and tourists. Besides, other than Siegfried and Roy, whoever got a good day’s work out of a cat?

We made a pit stop at Al Hisa Village. We noticed that bathrooms here had those little squirt hoses like the ones you would wash vegetables with by the potty – sort of a poor man’s bidet. We ended our day in the village of Wadi Musa, the gateway to Petra (which means rock). The name Wadi means valley and Musa means Moses, and thus this is the Valley of Moses, so named because Wadi Musa is said to be the site where Moses struck a rock with his staff and a spring appeared. The spring is still running today and we stopped by for a visit.   To the west we saw scrub covered hills with sheep and goats grazing placidly. There were rock formations leading to distant mountains (very Sedona like).  It was shortly before sundown which created a blend of beautiful colors – forest and sage green, antique gold, with shades of khaki  and burnt umber sandstone cliffs,  house sized boulders in shades ranging from terra cotta to burgundy,  with the mountains a pale lilac gray in the distance under a bright blue cloudless sky. We never expected to see so much color in the desert.

We checked into the Movenpick Hotel and made dinner plans.  Little did we know that our conventional dining was about to come to and end. This evening for our dinner, Sala arranged a special event at a restaurant called the Petra Kitchen which serves typical Jordanian fare with a twist – the twist being that the patrons are paired with a local cook (chef may be a stretch) to prepare the meal. There were about 40 of us altogether and we donned our big aprons and got to work. (I have no idea as to the pronunciations of the names of most of the dishes – so you can devise your own.) We were divided into groups, each working on a separate dish. We were assigned to the pastry table to prepare cheese triangles known as Sambousek b’jibn.  Ingredients included phyllo pastry, gruyere cheese, white cheese, lemon, onion and sesame

Cheese Triangles made by Guests at the Petra Kitchen

Cheese Triangles made by Guests at the Petra Kitchen

seeds. We rather clumsily rolled out the dough and placed a dab of the cheese mixture on each piece and folded it to make a triangle under the supervision of an Arab woman who must have been related to Job, since her patience was boundless. The triangles were deep fried and served hot with the rest of the meal, made by other patrons. The dishes included Galaya Bandura which was a tomato dish with cloves and pine nuts (sort of an Arabic salsa). There was a vegetable soup called Shourbat Khodar with zucchini, corn, carrots and potatoes, seasoned with cinnamon, butter and pepper. The main dish was Musakhan which is a chicken casserole served atop Arabic bread – also seasoned with cinnamon, pepper and sumac (apparently there is an edible version that is not the poison sumac that will give you a rash). We also had Arabic Salad – sort of like a Greek salad, but without the black olives. Our vegetable was Baba Ganuj which involved layers of egg plant, tomato, green pepper and onion layered with garlic and mint (odd combo, but it seemed to work).  We also had Tabbouleh which is a mix of cracked wheat, spices, tomatoes, lemon juice and olive oil. We drank Jordanian red wine with our meal which was quite good. We decided the white wines are not so good and presumed the climate is too harsh for sissy Chardonnay grapes.  It was a delicious meal and a most memorable experience. We walked the few blocks back to our hotel and did a little shopping en route at a glassblowers shop who made beautiful vases from Petra sand. We turned in early to rest up for a big day of exploration tomorrow.

March 6, 2010

Dateline:  Wadi Rum, Jordan

Today was truly a highlight of the trip with our much anticipated exploration of Petra and Wadi Rum. Afterward, the plan was to drive back to Amman, have dinner and then go to the airport to catch a flight to Paris. Stu and Sharon had an extra night in Jordan so they would take the same flights 24 hours later.

After an early breakfast we met Sala at 7:30 and he told us a little about the people of Petra. They were the Nabateans (pronounced “nah-bah- tee-uns” with the accent on “bah”). They worshipped 4 deities, 3 of which were women. The Nabateans practiced ritual sacrifice (similar to the Jews at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem), but only the wealthy could afford it – the poor had to eat their animals, rather than sacrificing them. So the poor substituted frankincense, which is derived from the sap of a particular tree (relative of incense as we know it). The Nabateans were merchants and entrepreneurs who moved to this area from Saudi Arabia and Yemen in the 6th Century B.C. The city became a caravan station on the spice and incense trade routes between the Orient and the Mediterranean with huge caravans of up to 1,000 camels. In its heyday, it was the center of a powerful kingdom, extending as far north as Damascus and as far south as the Gulf of Aqaba, with a population of 20 to 30 thousand people.  In the second century, the Romans came and more or less shared the city with the Nabateans, but Romans being Romans they started building stuff – fabulous stuff of course. They declared it subject to Rome and called the Arabian Province. It was partially destroyed by two earthquakes and the caravan routes were abandoned in favor of sea trade. Amidst the decline, the Bedoiun took it over and looted and destroyed much of what was left.  It remained hidden and forgotten by the outside world for centuries until it was discovered in the early 19th Century by a Swiss adventurer who disguised himself as a Muslim in order to be taken to the fabled city by the Bedouin.

A Ceremonial Guard at Petra

A Ceremonial Guard at Petra

The Petra site is operated by Bedouin today, a radical departure from the typical nomadic Bedouin lifestyle. The Jordanian government built houses for the Bedouin to get them to move out of Petra so it could be developed and excavated as a national treasure. It is also called the Rose City (for the color of the rock), the Lost City (because it was indeed lost for centuries) and something in Arabic meaning the Big Cemetery because there are countless tombs here.

We rode by horseback (too short a trip I thought for such a great experience) through a valley called the Bab el-Siq that got increasingly narrower as we approached  the entrance to the fabled city with its elaborate facades sculpted out of sheer

Petra Taxis in the Siq

Petra Taxis in the Siq

stone canyon walls. The Bab el-Siq  was so picturesque that we were already clicking away with our cameras and then the clicking intensified when we saw our first structure carved into rock. It was two rock-cut tombs, one Egyptian style called the Obelisk Tomb and one Nabatean structure called the Bab el-Siq Triniculum. A triniculum was a funerary dining chamber – although I was unclear if this is for after-life dining or an Irish Wake sort of party. (I suspect the former is the case). Sala told us to just wait until we see the really good stuff in store for us inside the city. At the end of our ride, we found ourselves at the ruins of a monumental carved arch, which once marked an entrance, but had fallen in 1896 and only traces of its supports are visible today.

The Siq at Petra

The Siq at Petra

Walking through the former archway, we entered the Siq (pronounced “seek”)which is a deep, narrow gorge running between sheer canyon walls formed over the millennia out of solid rock eroding from the water runoff from Moses’ spring at Wadi Musa. We chose to walk in although you can go in small broughams (one horse buggies that look sort of like the sulkies from harness racing. They have to be small to fit through the narrow passageways of the Siq). We walked for half a mile through the sinuous Siq passageway, which at its narrowest point is only about 3 feet wide from wall to wall, similar to the slot canyons of the American West. The Siq is one of three access routes in to Petra, but is by far the most dramatic.  It grew deeper and narrower, seeming to close in on us as we approached the ancient city. The Nabateans had paved the floor of the Siq in the First Century A.D. with large, flat stones and much of their work is still intact. They also had built water channels to control flooding, conserve water and prevent erosion. There were various niches hollowed out in the walls which once held carved statues of their deities. There was also some faint Nabatean graffiti in a few places where it has been protected from the effects of erosions over the centuries – no hearts with arrows through them or lovers initials as best we could tell–  they are more stick figures,  pictorial in nature, which may or may not have been trying to convey the idea that Kilroy was here. We also saw the Djinn Blocks (Petra has a total of 26) carved out of tower like rocks along the way, which were for housing spirits (djinn) of Arab folklore. There are a few ruins with barely discernable djinn (pronounced “din”)faces amid the rubble of some of the niches.

Our First Peek at the Treasury of Petra

Our First Peek at the Treasury of Petra

We experienced one of the most dramatic moments of our visit when we rounded a corner and could see a thin slice of bright daylight, framing an equally thin slice of the mystical façade of the building referred to as the Treasury, the most famous structure in Petra. Our first view of the Treasury was through a narrow gap in the rock –and in a scene right out of Indian Jones lore, with camels on the ground awaiting tourists desiring a photo op. Raiders of the Lost Ark was actually filmed here. There was no real connection historically, but it makes good scenery and a perfect setting. The Ark you may recall was believed to contain the 10 Commandment tablets and other sacred writings of the Torah. You may also remember Harrison Ford wielding a bullwhip in the courtyard of the Treasury.

The Treasury was built in the First Century B.C., although the name is something of a misnomer. Historians believe it was a tomb and temple and more a spiritual repository, than a treasure trove. The statuary above the door believed to be of the Nabatean fertility goddess El-Uzza. The facade has a large urn at the top of it which Bedouin reportedly shot at over the years, apparently thinking that they would be showered in a piñata-like event with gold coins or other fabulous booty. As it turned out this didn’t quite work for them and we envisioned them showered with ricocheting  shrapnel and debris instead. Crossing through the colossal doorway, we were surprised to see that the inside the building is extremely small, simple and modest, with an interior space of only about 14 square yards. There is a sanctuary of sorts and a place for a ritual bath, which supports the idea that this was a temple.

The Tombs of Bab el-Siq Petra

The Tombs of Bab el-Siq Petra

From the Treasury we walked through an area called the Outer Siq which was lined with all sorts of elaborate (for their day) dwellings and tombs. At this point the street branched off in several directions and we realized how much we had misjudged the time required to do Petra justice. They used “attic” burial chambers carved high up in the rock face to protect the bodies from scavenging animals and tomb raiders. (The latter was prevalent since they often buried jewels and other valuables with their dead).

Most of the architecture in this section of Petra is described as Nabatean Classical, which fuses Greek and Roman features (columns, cornices and pediments) with the native (stacked ledges and crow steps  which resemble inverted Mayan pyramids). The façade in many cases is the bulk of the building, which may only be a few feet deep inside. One of the streets is called the Street of Facades where this architecture is prevalent. The structures seem designed to impress the passersby more so than to honor the corpse inside the tomb.  In one section the structures were four tombs high – sort of sky-scraper tombs in their day. Tombs seemed to far outnumber houses and thus this area is fittingly referred to as the necropolis.

Roman Ruins at Petra

Roman Ruins at Petra

We emerged from the Outer Siq into an area that the Romans developed, particularly obvious with their signature amphitheater. It too was cut from solid rock and unfortunately many old tomb facades were damaged in the process, and thus today there are the rows and rows of seats and above them are the open façade-less cave/tombs. It is in this area that we saw the truly elaborate Royal tombs – quite palatial, especially when compared to the little nooks where they stuck the average Joe. The largest of these tombs is the Palace Tomb which was originally 5 stories, which made it taller than the mountain it was carved from. Stones had to be stacked to achieve the desired height, but earthquakes over the years have largely destroyed the top floor. Another tomb, the Corinthian, so named because of the style of its columns, is sort of a puzzle to archaeologists since it is not the least  bit symmetrical and has doorways in several different styles. No self-respecting Roman would have built this, so it assumed to be a Roman wannabe tomb.

The Silk Tomb at Petra

The Silk Tomb at Petra

There is also the Urn Tomb with its facade carved narrow and high into the rock face with a series of Coliseum style arches below it. There is a ruined statue of a man wearing a toga, so the assumption is that there are Romans buried in the chambers of this tomb. One of the most striking we thought was the very plain Silk Tomb, so named for the colors – pink, yellow, gray and brown – which streak the outer walls. It is a natural effect of water on stone over the millennia, said to resemble shot silk (multiple colored fibers woven together).

We kept walking and found ourselves in a wide valley amid the ruins of the Roman Cardo (a colonnaded main street) that once marked the main entrance to the city of Petra after the Romans took over in 106 A.D.  The Siq where we entered was actually the back entrance then. The Romans built the requisite temples, baths, houses and market places. There were also ruins from Byzantines, Crusaders and all manner of conquerors, but time was running short and

Big Man - Little Donkey

Big Man – Little Donkey

our donkeys awaited us for the trip out of the canyon to meet Zuzu and our vehicle. The donkeys were small, but sturdy and I did think Gary’s tried to bolt when he saw who was going to be on his back, but he did an admirable job. My donkey was a feisty little beast who “moved out right smartly” as they say in the South, and he liked to be out front so I called him Seabiscuit – as for Gary’s donkey, we just called him  Bad Luck. All the donkeys were sure-footed and nimble enough to dodge the donkey-pies left on the trail from previous trips. Apparently the whole trail constituted the donkey’s “Happy Place” We were instructed to shout “yall’a” (apparently Arabic for “giddy-up”) to our donkeys to urge them on.  We probably greatly amused the locals, but they returned the favor, with for example,  a young Arab boy in native dress on a donkey listening to an IPod. The ride was fun (for us any way –  for the donkeys perhaps not so much). Besides, we have walked so much on this trip, that Gary’s Odor Eaters have cannibalized themselves and are in shreds.

Desert of Wadi Rum

Desert of Wadi Rum

Looking at my guidebook, I came to realize we only saw about 20% of what is here and we spent the better part of a day seeing that much. We could easily spend 4 days to become really “Petra-fied “. We left Petra, for the hour and a half drive to the southeast across the Moab Desert to Wadi Rum, another stop on the old camel caravan route. En route, Sala pointed out another place from Biblical times, the hill believed to be the site of the tomb of Aaron, Moses’ brother who also died in the Land of Moab.

Rum means Mountain and thus the translation for this Wadi Rum is Valley and Mountain. Like Petra, Wadi Rum has quite a “wow factor”. There are tall pinnacles of rock weathered into strange shapes and like Petra – so surprisingly colorful, although you can’t  expect to see green or blue(except for the sky). These colors, streaked across the mountains and the desert floor are the rich, warm colors from an artist’s palette in the American Southwest. The broad vistas

The Seven Pillars of Wisdom - Wadi Rum

The Seven Pillars of Wisdom – Wadi Rum

are reminiscent of Arizona or Utah and when the sun moves, the colors morph into different hues. Many of the canyon walls are ridged like a Ruffles potato chip, while others are as smooth as glass. There are broad natural bridges and arches honed down to narrow ribbons from the wind.  The folds and undulations in the rocky peaks create deep shadows against a dazzling rock face and the caramel colored sand drifts into dunes against the scattered boulders.   It is so exotic – you can easily imagine Lawrence of Arabia galloping over the dunes.

Lawrence of Arabia was a British citizen named T.E. Lawrence, who lived from 1888 to 1935. He fought with the Arabs against the Ottoman Turks who ruled the area at the time in the revolt that began in 1915. He spent time in Mecca in 1916 working with Arab leaders of the revolt behind the scenes, but then he returned to Wadi Rum to lead guerilla operations, including teaching the Bedouin how to make bombs to blow up Turkish rail lines. They fought the Turks from 1915 to 1921 until the area became a British Protectorate.  Sala told us that among the legacies from Protectorate Days are bagpipes and the curious habit of eating beans at breakfast.  And speaking of curiosities, the Jordanian Army trains here and they wear camouflage patterned fatigues of navy and light blue – although I’m not sure they could be called “camo”, since they obviously are not going to blend into the landscape with that color scheme.

We had lunch at Rum Village, the hub for sightseeing in Wadi Rum, at the Captain’s Restaurant, a massive establishment in a complex of shops designed for the busloads of tourist that come south from Amman or north from the cruise ship terminal at Aqaba. Today, the hordes were invading elsewhere, so it was pretty sleepy here. We had our last buffet meal of the trip (a cause for celebration in itself although it wasn’t bad at all – we were just over the whole buffet thing at this point) There was a little confusion over who was going to take us in their 4X4 Jeeps. There were probably 50 of them, all sort of battered looking. (the vehicles, not the drivers although they looked a little bit weathered themselves. Apparently there is no sunscreen in use by any of the locals out here.) There was some mild discussions (or so we thought) in Arabic over who was going to get to take these tourists or who was going to have to take these tourists – we weren’t sure of the gist of it. Anyway, Sala got it sorted out and we were assigned a driver. His truck bed didn’t have any cover so several of the drivers took one off another Jeep (Toyota Jeep that is) and fixed us some shade. We looked, so I fancied like some gypsy vagabonds, setting off across the desert.

We drove up the Barrah Canyon with a peak called the Jebel Makhras, a large outcropping with columnar rocks looming above us. It is nicknamed the 7 Pillars of Wisdom after T.E. Lawrence’s book by the same name. We also saw Jebel Barrah and several other Jebels (Jebel is another name for mountain in Arabic). At Jebel Amud, we saw petroglyph like markings on the rocks believed to date to 3,000 B.C., so there is evidence that Wadi Rum has seen thousands of years of human habitation.

We stopped at Lawrence’s Spring near Rum Village, described by T.E. Lawrence as “a paradise just 5 feet square”. Water is so scare here, it doesn‘t take much to make a paradise.  The spring was there in Nabatean times since their water channels are clearly visible. A few scrubby plants were valiantly trying to get a foothold near a memorial to Lawrence, carved into the rock face. It is supposed to be a likeness, but it doesn’t look much like Peter O’Toole to me.

Tea with the Bedouins at Wadi Rum

Tea with the Bedouins at Wadi Rum

We also stopped at a Bedouin camp for tea, which proved to be an interesting experience. Hot tea on a hot day seems counter-intuitive but is actually quite refreshing.  We were the only tourists in the place, but everyone was friendly and hospitable, which is part of their culture and religion. They had the earthen ovens, rounded  and adobe–like which are called  “zerbs” , but it seemed nothing was cooking. As hot as it gets there, you would hardly think ovens are needed, but it does cool off at night so maybe so. There were several camels here and we saw one being trained in some sort of camel obedience school. He was ornery and our interpretation was that he was taken to the Bedoin version of camel time out away from the other camels until he could behave himself.  Misbehaving camels can be quite vociferous and this one definitely seemed to be sassing his trainer. Camels are still widely used by the Bedouin, which seems a little incongruous since they also have cell phones, but that’s the way it is here.

The desert scenery of Wadi Rum was well worth the trip, even sitting on a bench in the bed of a rusty Toyota truck with worn out shocks. We want to come back and spend more time on the endless hiking and camel trekking opportunities and really explore the places we only glimpsed from our flying Toyota.

We started for Amman and at a rest stop Zuzu bought all of us a pastry with a name that sounds like “wall-bot” – a sort of baklava thing made with honey, which was sticky, but quite tasty. Gary told the guy tending the bathroom that he had two wives, pointing to Sharon and me. The guy believed him and cautioned him that one wife and one mother-in-law should be plenty of trouble for any man. After a very full day, we returned to Amman to have dinner before our return flight home.

In retrospect, we really did not have enough time budgeted for Jordan. We barely scratched the surface in Amman, no time for Aqaba at all, and we needed a minimum of two days at both Petra and Wadi Rum. We very much appreciated the warmth and hospitality of the Jordanians and feel we will always be welcomed back. It is interesting to note that the Jordanians (predominately Muslim) take excellent care of and have a profound respect for Christian and Jewish religious sites and Christian and Jewish tourists, a model well worth emulating. I hope we Americans can master this tolerance thing as well as the Jordanians have.

Here in Jordan, plans are made with the caveat, “Inshallah”, which means God willing, and thus we plan to return to Jordan, Inshallah. In closing out this adventure, I must again defer to the wisdom of Dr. Seuss – “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened”.